EB planning today for tomorrow's growth in Connecticut, Rhode Island
Groton — Around the year 2030, when Electric Boat is turning out both advanced nuclear attack submarines and a new class of ballistic missile submarines, the company anticipates having 18,000 employees, compared to the 13,000 it has today.
That means an average of 330 new hires annually in Connecticut and Rhode Island – many of them welders, pipefitters and sheet metal workers – during the next 15 years.
As EB's Vice President of Human Resources & Administration Maura Dunn says, "That's a lot of growth."
More than 90 percent of that growth will be in the shipyard trades, which will nearly double in size over the next 15 years. With those numbers, the company is looking for partners — community colleges, local high schools and middle schools and others — to supply future employees for work that EB describes as both complex and rewarding.
How large a demand for workers will depend on continued congressional support of the Ohio-class replacement program, a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy's current force of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines; and continued production of the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine.
The Virginia-class program will include an upgraded version of the submarine that incorporates the Virginia Payload Module, an 80-foot section with four large-diameter payload tubes in the center of the ship.
Future employees most likely will have different backgrounds than today's workers. In Dunn's words, the company needs to make sure it's communicating "what really these jobs mean to everybody, not just people who are kind of targeted to go into trades at the schools."
On a recent trip, Dunn talked with a dean at Rhode Island College in Providence about identifying new ways to find welders, sharing with him a theory she'd heard that welding appeals to men "because they're building something," and to women "because it's art."
"The dean was like, 'Oh my heavens, I have welders on this campus today. They're in the arts school,'" Dunn recalled.
"So to me, I want to make sure, given the large growth that we have and the unique opportunity we have for middle-class manufacturing jobs in America with a rich benefits package, I want to be sure that we're making those opportunities available to everyone," Dunn said. "We need to make sure that everybody knows the story of what's available at EB."
The company also will need to attract younger Americans to replace its senior workforce. On average, 263 EB employees have retired during each of the past five years. Currently, 61 percent of EB's employees are over the age of 40.
In addition to the expected 330 new jobs each year, EB will have to hire about another 250 workers to replace those who will retire or leave for other reasons, for a total of nearly 600 openings annually. The employment growth is expected to begin at EB's Quonset Point, R.I., facility, where large sections of hulls are assembled, in 2018, and then in Groton in 2020.
"There is already a kind of generational change going on" at the company right now, Dunn said.
EB may be able to help reverse a longstanding state trend by attracting younger workers, who largely have left over the years for better opportunities in other states.
Connecticut is one of the most rapidly aging states in the country because of its lack of job creation, according to Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut.
"We hear that people are leaving Connecticut. Yeah, people have been leaving Connecticut because there are no economic opportunities here," Carstensen said. "We can't keep young people, either high school or college graduates, if there are no jobs for them."
The shipyard jobs EB will offer provide "real solid entry" to the middle class for those with a high school degree or equivalent, Dunn said.
"It's a unique opportunity in a country where we're clamoring for manufacturing jobs," she added
State Department of Labor data shows that there were 159,700 employees working in the manufacturing sector in Connecticut in December 2014, the most recent numbers available for that month. That's in comparison to 237,100 workers in December 1999. That's a loss of more than 77,000 manufacturing jobs in the state over a 15-year period — more than 5,000 a year.
The anticipated growth at EB barely would make a dent when it comes to regaining the manufacturing jobs that have been lost, but the pay and benefits the company offers does make it "a good place to make a living and support your family," said Ken DelaCruz, president of the Metal Trades Council, the bargaining unit for most shipyard workers.
The average starting salary for a worker in the trades at EB is about $38,000 a year, "and then very quickly you can advance," Dunn said. The average salary for more senior workers is in the $56,000-plus range.
"On top of that is a benefits package worth probably another 50 percent," she said, adding that there are good opportunities for overtime "for a lot of these folks."
The biggest pitch that the company has, Dunn said, is that the "technical challenge of our work is unprecedented." On job postings, the company describes itself as "the world's foremost designer and builder of nuclear submarines, the most complex machines made by man."
Training for new trades workers ranges from one week for painters to three months for welders, with three weeks being the training period for most trades. Training also covers shipyard safety, benefits and company policies.
'Hot and heavy on welding'
Not everything will be new at EB.
"On the trades side, we're actually out revitalizing some of the infrastructure that we used to have in the peak of our hiring with the last generation of ships in the '80s," Dunn said.
The EB designer apprenticeship program graduated a class in June 2014, but the shipyard trades apprentice program is currently inactive.
"I'd like to restart the apprenticeship program, which in the past has been very good," DelaCruz said, adding, "Hopefully, we can work with technical schools and colleges for specialized training going forward."
Hiring at EB is cyclical, given the nature of the work.
"There are certain phases of construction, like right now, (when) we're hot and heavy on welding," he said, adding that certain trades are more heavily engaged on the front end of construction and others at the finish.
"When this thing picks up, we're going to be looking for just about every trade," he added, a constant need for everything from outside electricians to welders.
Those in the EB yard today are eager for the increase in work after some recent rocky years.
"We're excited, but the last couple of years, especially on the waterfront side, up until now the workload has been constantly shrinking, and it has been tough in some of the trades," DelaCruz said recently. "There's been a spike of work and we've called some of the folks back, then it drops off. We're all looking forward to this major influx of work."
Back in the early 1990s, DelaCruz said, the trades had about 9,000 workers, compared to about 2,400 right now.
EB wants to continue to maintain "the high degree of local workforce participation" that it has, Dunn said, noting that more than 80 percent of EB's employees come from Rhode Island and Connecticut. Around 81 percent of workers at the company's Groton and New London locations hail from within the state, and 85 percent of the Rhode Island workforce is local.
"We want to keep it that way as we grow," Dunn said. "Our goal is to make sure that we create jobs for people from our region."
Since the federal government purchases submarines in large quantities, EB has been focused on maintaining the size of its cyclical workforce.
"As we were more in the replacement hiring mode for the last, let's say, 10, 15 years, the game has really changed on how you recruit people," she said
To that end, EB is discussing how it can get the word out about its opportunities "on a variety of platforms," Dunn said, "everything from a cellphone to other mobile devices, so people can find us and learn about the great opportunities here."
Region's forecast looking up
Carstensen, the UConn economist, said what's happening at EB fits into a larger trajectory of growth in the state that includes the biotech industry, particularly Jackson Labs, which is building a new nonprofit research institute in Farmington, and some hiring at Pfizer's Groton facility.
And if the National Coast Guard Museum comes to fruition in downtown New London, that would further growth by increasing tourism locally.
"If this trajectory continues, then we will be adding some significant population, some significant jobs over the next 15, 20 years," he said.
At the high school and community college level, Carstensen said, "we'll see a strong response in helping students acquire the specific skillsets needed for EB and for these other areas."
Historically, the state has been accused of doing a poor job linking its educational pipeline with workforce needs. Carstensen credited Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with turning this around slightly by "pushing community colleges" in the state to respond to workforce need. And while some of the community colleges have advanced manufacturing programs, more needs to be done, Carstensen said.
In Connecticut, unlike some other states, "there isn't discretionary money for community colleges to mount programs responsive to the needs of Connecticut businesses," he said, adding that South Carolina has a discretionary budget of $3 million or $4 million for linking its educational system to workforce needs.
To that end, EB is in the beginning stages of talks with the Ella T. Grasso Regional Technical School in Groton, which is renovating its existing welding space. EB and school officials are discussing alignment of the welding curriculum with company needs. The school expects to offer a welding program for adults starting next spring, and hopes to open it up to students in the next few years.
"It's an excellent opportunity and there's a lot of interest," said Principal Patricia Feeney, who added that the "phone is ringing constantly" with people interested in finding out when the program is going to start.
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