The future of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is bright, with five submarines currently at the yard, all three dry docks in use for the foreseeable future, and 350 additional employees expected to be hired for 2017 — adding to a shipyard workforce of 5,400 people.
And with the 2008-commissioned USS New Hampshire ready for maintenance, Virginia class submarines continue to come into the yard, assuring work for the next generation of workers.
That is the assessment of shipyard commander Capt. David Hunt, who spoke Friday morning to a group of about 50 people at York County Community College’s “Eggs and Issues” breakfast in Wells, Maine.
“It’s an exciting time at the shipyard,” said Hunt, who arrived last summer to begin a tour of duty that is expected to last three years.
Hunt is no stranger to Portsmouth. From 2010 to 2013, he served as an engineering and planning officer and then as an operations officer there. Most recently military deputy for shipyard operations at NAVSEA Command, he said one of the most noticeable changes since his return is the focus on workforce development.
“Today, when we bring people in, we give them a boot camp.” This begins with classroom work and then continues at learning centers where workers learn their jobs in actual mock-ups of submarines, he said. The mock-ups are a PNSY innovation, created at the suggestion of the workers themselves. The idea is that workers learn from mistakes in the mock-up, while on a real sub a mistake can cost time and money.
“They’re able to get muscle memory and proficiency,” Hunt said. “It may take a little longer, but it’s more efficient. There’s better first-time quality” on the actual submarine under the system. “As part of it, we’re taking the best and brightest off the waterfront to train the new workers. These guys own the learning centers. It’s amazing how empowered this makes workers. The lower-level folks and the middle management are coming together to tackle these problems.”
The current workload is still weighted toward the older Los Angeles class subs, but the last of those will be decommissioned by 2029, Hunt said. Currently, two of the three dry docks can accommodate the larger Virginia class subs, and more and more of this newer generation will be coming into the yard in the years to come.
“The Virginia class is our future,” he said.
Bonnie Pothier of Sen. Angus King’s York County office asked Hunt about the yard’s ability to attract workers, saying many manufacturers in the county are having trouble.
Hunt said the yard’s apprenticeship program is very healthy, with about four times the number qualifying as there are slots available. He said there have been some shortages in the Worker Skilled Progression program, for those who already have a skill. And as for engineers, “it can be hard grabbing them when the unemployment rate is so low.”
Still, he said, the situation is far from dire. “The government pay is good enough to attract people,” he said.
As the shipyard grows, parking has emerged as an issue. In addition to the shipyard’s workforce, there are about 1,000 “tenant” workers at places like the battalion headquarters for Army recruiting and the regional Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Another 1,000 are submarine sailors and Coast Guardsmen stationed on one of the three cutters at the yard.
All told, there are 4,500 parking spots on the yard with no additional parking garage planned for the near future, Hunt said, “so clearly it’s an issue.” He said about 85 percent of the workforce works first shift, and 15 percent work the second shift. “We’re looking at spreading that out to two and three shifts, which will ease the situation.”
He said the yard is also encouraging ride-sharing and trying to secure more bus service to the yard.
“We’re also looking at a private/public venture parking lot just outside the yard in Kittery,” though he said nothing firm has developed yet.
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