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Re-train workforce to boost submarine production

Earlier this month, Electric Boat President Jeff Geiger told a packed room of elected officials and regional stakeholders that the company is once again forecasting a strong year of hiring. The expectation is that the shipyards will need more than 1,300 new employees to keep up with attrition and to fill new positions that are a result of increased submarine construction.

In my role as the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee in Congress, I have been a strong advocate for our submarine force. Demand for submarine capacity has steadily grown over the past decade, but recent global developments have made calls for submarine investment all the more urgent. Our top military leaders in both Europe and Asia have made it clear, through their testimony before my subcommittee, that we need additional submarines to meet the threats posed by a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China.

The same need for additional ships is true across our entire naval fleet. Between increased deployments and maintenance work that is struggling to keep pace, the simple truth is that we need a larger Navy to meet the demands of today and the future. That is why the Navy under the Obama Administration conducted a nearly year-long review to determine the requisite number of ships to meet these demands.

The results, which were released last month, are good news for our region. Not only does the review recommend increasing the total number of ships from 308 to 355, it boosts the requirement for attack submarines from 48 to 66. Submarines were given a larger boost than any other part of our fleet, reflecting their unrivaled value in our nation’s defense.

Even before these developments, Electric Boat was poised for significant growth. With the serial production of two Virginia-class submarines each year that was initiated during my first term, there are 15 new submarines under contract now with 11 in various stages of construction. In addition, the yard has been named as the prime contractor for the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, the construction of which demand nearly two and a half times the workload of a Virginia-class submarine.

Even with all of this good news, we should not forget that serious challenges lay ahead. We will need to protect the gains already made and work across partisan lines in Washington to secure the funding necessary to maintain strong build rates. This means ensuring the industrial base in Connecticut can provide the skilled labor both the shipyard and its suppliers will need to get the job done.

We need an all-hands-on deck effort to ensure that we are training enough skilled workers from right here in Connecticut to fill these shipbuilding jobs over the next two decades. We are off to a great start. With the strong backing of former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, I helped secure $6 million in federal funding to start a manufacturing pipeline in eastern Connecticut. This highly successful initiative brings together workforce development leaders, community colleges, and employers from across the region to train workers for high-skilled, high-paying jobs at Electric Boat and its suppliers. Other efforts, such as using federal funding to restart a long-dormant union-led apprenticeship program at the yard to train existing workers, will further contribute to the goal of filling these jobs with local talent.

While eastern Connecticut is up to the task, it remains to be seen whether similar domestic investments will be a priority for the new administration. I believe that many of my colleagues in Congress, on a bipartisan level, support a strong investment in our workforce development needs. I will work with them to sustain these critical programs. It is also important that we develop other ways to support our developmental programs on the state and regional level.

While the nation will not know the exact details of the Navy’s new build-up plan for some time, one thing is clear; the ability of our shipyard to meet the workforce demands in the years ahead will make or break their plans. Eastern Connecticut has found a model that works. Moving forward, it is critical that we do all what we can to sustain it. The continued growth of our region’s economy and the ability to meet the demands of our nation depend on it.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, serves Connecticut’s Second District.

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