Huntington Ingalls Confronts the Stigma of Shipbuilding

by Craig Hooper on April 17, 2018

With all the fun and excitement of Washington’s Sea/Air/Space exposition, it was easy to overlook one of the more interesting and consequential displays of the show. Most observers missed it–because this Huntington Ingalls offering was stuck off on a tractor-trailer, off the display floor. It was parked way out back, beyond the reach of the hardcore convention smokers. Most probably experienced it as an out-of-the-mainstream reception venue, and probably had a chilly beer by it before rushing back inside to warm up. But inside of that trailer was something incredible–Huntington Ingalls Industries has managed to pack high-tech shipbuilding into a trailer, and they’re taking the shipbuilding profession on tour–showcasing a cleaner, more clinical and data-driven vision of America’s shipbuilding future. It was as an impressive piece of outreach I have ever seen.

You can dismiss the display as some useless convention bauble, but Huntington Ingalls’ new toy is significant for a lot of reasons. First, the labor-replacement tidal wave–as older Cold-War era workers retire–is breaking upon the carrier and submarine labor force. Just as the Nation wants to build the Columbia Class SSBNs, additional Virginia Class SSNs, AND add in a block buy of the Ford Class CVNs to the Huntington Ingalls backlog, most of their trained workforce will retire. And, making matters worse, in a booming economy, existing shipbuilding recruiting tools/recruiting locations aren’t as effective as they once were.

Second, shipbuilding labors under something of a stigma–who wants their kids to work in a hot, dirty and dangerous shipyard these days?  Fewer and fewer shipbuilding parents are urging their children to become shipbuilders; multi-generational shipbuilding families that were proudly showcased in The Yard are scarce. Who wants to put up with the job uncertainty of working overtime one day and possibly fired the next? And shipbuilding can be rough–there’s a perception out there that only reform-school kids and ex-cons do shipbuilding, right? I mean, it’s seen as one of the last analogue industries left in a digital world–and one only needs to spend some time on the Gulf Coast to see how new entrants to the labor force are being captured by the aerospace corridor–even though some of the manufacturing tasks are the same, shipbuilding just cannot compete.

And finally–and this one is on the shipbuilders–the constant moaning and groaning about how China/Korea/Japan/Europe does shipbuilding better, faster and for lower cost–has cut into the national enthusiasm for shipbuilding. Who wants to work for a loser of an industry, right?

Innovations like Huntington Ingalls’ new trailer can help change the game and get people excited about shipbuilding again.

Help Wanted:

For naval shipbuilding, labor is a huge deal. If a shipbuilder can’t recruit and train tens of thousands of workers and then entice them to show up every day, the yard will fail. And with everything else in the labor-development infrastructure pretty much in place at HII and the larger naval shipyards–the shine and excitement of on-site apprentice academies, community-college welding training programs and tight integration with local labor assistance boards has kinda faded.  Without some sort of recruiting innovation, the industry “bigs” will be left scraping from a dwindling pool of local labor.

The Huntington Ingalls road-show changes that game–bringing the promise of a digital shipyard and high-tech work to new audiences in a new, hand-on and non-powerpointy kinda way. It’s a hands-on demonstration of shipbuilding’s future (Look! We scan in the work! Everything is digital! Data-driven! Integrated! It’s clean! Almost clinical!). Quite frankly, the trailer is one of the better blending of STEM-based “buzz” with an old-fashioned labor-recruitment drive that I have seen. And the trailer reinforces the idea that Huntington Ingalls is the first-mover with high-tech digital shipbuilding (even though a lot of smaller/newer yards are ahead of ’em). But it works. The trailer de-stigmatizes shipbuilding and it focuses on some less-highlighted design/back-end aspects of shipbuilding beyond, oh, welding.

But this trailer is not just a tool for recruiting. It’s a fantastic political tool. I mean, everybody knows labor is ultimately the engine that builds and holds fierce Congressional support for shipbuilding. Efforts to support and build the workforce capture Congressional interest like nothing else does–but, as I mentioned before, the training academies and local efforts are sorta stale. But packaging this sort of high-tech shipbuilding fun into a mobile tractor-trailer/reception venue makes it a wonderful lobbying tool. Rock into somebody’s district and invite the local staff, or roll up to one of the Congressional office-buildings, hold a reception and send staffers through whose land-locked districts are far away from any waterfront yard.

Anyway, the trailer is impressive. I’m glad to see a shipbuilding “big” finally leverage it’s disproportionate indirect cost and fee to do a few pro-shipbuilding things that can, ultimately, support shipbuilding as a whole. This sort of recruiting and “imagineering” tool is certainly an investment above and beyond what the little yards can muster–at the end of the day, only the shipbuilding “bigs” can really change the negative perception–or stigma–of shipbuilding and shipbuilders.


And finally, kudos to Jennifer Boykin–the long-time shipbuilder who is at the helm of HII Newport News–for correctly diagnosing and acting to help resolve a worrying long-term shipbuilding challenge. Yeah, a fancy recruiting and reception trailer won’t solve everything, but HII is putting their trailer to good, creative use, and, well, it’s innovative sector-building outreach that, as a whole, the low-margin shipbuilding industry has a tough time justifying and finding the funds to do. It is exactly what the industry needs right now.

The next step is to extend this work to support the idea that America actually has great shipbuilders. But how?  Maybe by funding some high-profile and innovative/unclassified design and conceptual work–like throwing some designers at the America’s Cup race, or by funding some series of audacious and well-publicized shipbuilding design challenge/contests, or by ripping a page from the “Elon Musk school of marketing” and publicly leap far beyond where the naval customer is right now to leverage wider public enthusiasm/capture wider public imagination.

HII has the money to show us all that they–American Shipbuilders–can get the hard stuff done right. Do it.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Galt April 18, 2018 at 7:59 am

There are many big issues in recruiting for shipbuilding

Why go into US Shipbuilding when they only build US Navy Ships. It is a yoyo marketplace where you don’t know when the ship class will be cancelled or what the next one will be? Until there is commercial work to moderate out the ups and downs of Military spending, shipbuilding is a tenuous and anxiety ridden career.

Why does a high tech shipbuilder ALWAYS overrun and the costs of new ships ONLY goes up? NO WHERE else does the cost of goods INCREASE over time. Ship Hulls are more expensive than ever (forget the Combat systems) and are thinner and more fragile.

Why is the Quality so bad? Forget teething issues, there are many basic we didn’t build it right. Have you seen the pictures of the LPD-17 cable runs and stairwells installed upside down?

Why is there no competent design reviews? How can the LCS bust its weight budgets? How can the LPD-17 NOT catch the alignment pins on the engine mounts?

What bright young energetic person wants to work in a business like this? Oh and under constant pay pressure while the Corporation just keeping making more money?

If the trailer addresses these issues, then it might be a success.


Craig Hooper April 19, 2018 at 5:16 pm

I hear your frustration; but many of the issues you describe plague other careers as well.

There are a lot of reasons to gripe about American shipbuilding. There are a lot of things worth solving out there–and they are things that may not get solved until America gets around to building ships again, in numbers. I mean, there’s a reason why China can build a frigate, deliver it, and, within days, send it on a long cruise–and that reason is probably due to volume. They’ve built that hull many, many times over, and they probably trained–building and designing–a whole lot of civilian ships of all kinds of shapes and sizes.

And then there is complexity–we’re building ships and trying to incorporate all kinds of technology into warships while spending a ton of time and energy into proposing/delivering the lowest-cost vessel we can. It’s not a good combo for anything but engineering failures–and often those fixes cost an enormous amount. It’s hard work and a tough environment.

But if we start from where you are–jaded and frustrated–we land in that defeatist, America can’t build ships mindset that cripples the entire industry. We make pretty good ships, and frankly, we’ve never NOT made blunders. The FFG-7 was hated when built. We’ve made whole classes of ships that were failures (The Mischners wave from the bar, where they’re drinking with the ex-USS Triton). Even the Nautilus was vibrating apart as she set records. There’s stuff to do and things could be better, yes. But malaise without an effort to fix it does nothing. So yeah, the trailer doesn’t address everything, but it is a step in the right direction.

And going in the right direction is, sometimes, good enough.


John Galt April 20, 2018 at 7:19 am

I think my frustration masked my real point.

Having a good workforce consists of 3 aspects. 1st is Recruiting, 2nd is development (almost no one shows up able to do what you need), and 3rd is Retention. This is a 3 legged stool and you want it to be level.

Although the trailer addresses the 1st part, without addressing the other 2 parts, it is only lipstick an a pig. You MIGHT get good people to see beyond the lipstick and feel they can turn the pig into something good, or you will get folks that will come on get trained and then bail either because it is a pig or they go through the first downturn. Off to the oil and gas fields they go.

The trailer is s good idea but needs to be part of a Comprehensive Plan to improve the Shipbuilding workforce or else the best you will have is high Churn where you are constantly training people for other industries.

BTW those HII people, when they were part of NGC, were very open about how they live for change orders. Think about what that means for your workforce. If you point out a design omission of even flaw and the Government hasn’t caught it, what is management going to say? Wait for the Change Order, we will make more money on it. Or if the Government wants something bad done (like adding too much equipment to the LCS), again just wait for the change order, we will get more money.

SO even if you get good workers how good are they gonna be after being in that environment for a few years?

I have hired, fired, and retained people for 24 yrs since I got out of the service. Your workforce is a HOLISTIC entity that has to be treated as such. Keep the 3 legged stool level!


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