The U.S. Navy and its suppliers have thousands of open jobs at government repair yards and in the private shipbuilding and ship repair industrial base, as hiring and retaining skilled workers has become “our No. 1 strategic challenge across the enterprise,” according to the head of Naval Sea Systems Command.
Vice Adm. Bill Galinis said Monday government and industry are competing against each other for a undersized pool of talent in both trades and white-collar specialties.
Across the Navy’s four public shipyards, which repair and modernize the fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, he said the Navy ended 2022 short about 1,200 workers. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii was generally sufficiently staffed, he said, but the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington was short on engineers and technical experts, while the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine faced “pressure points” in their trade shops.
Among the new challenges, Galinis said at an American Society of Naval Engineers conference here, is a shrinking wage gap between these Navy jobs and “some of the fast food restaurants, Starbucks, and Amazon and those types of companies.”
Galinis told Defense News after his speech the fiscal 2023 budget included pay increases across the federal government for civilian employees who follow the general schedule pay scale, which includes the bulk of the white-collar workforce at Navy yards.
The federal budget, however, didn’t affect the trades jobs, meaning the welders, electricians, pipefitters and others who do the hands-on work to repair submarines and aircraft carriers at these Navy yards did not see the same pay boost as their counterparts. Even so, the Navy redirected money in FY23 to create a pay scale structure for tradesmen and add pay increases to keep the jobs competitive.
“Just like most of the other federal employees got a pay increase, we need to give our trades a pay increase as well,” he said.
“When we go to hire somebody, we talk about the entire package. Compensation is just a part of it. There’s a training element, there’s future benefits, but it’s really an opportunity to become a part of something larger than yourself,” he told Defense News. “What we ask our trades, in particular, and our shipyard workers … is to take on some really hard jobs, but also some very important jobs.”
Galinis pointed to the submarine industrial base and the Team Subs collection of government officesas an example of proactive workforce development. The Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance has partnered with General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and other local vendors to train more than 1,400 shipyard and manufacturing workers in the last few years, Galinis said during his conference remarks.
In Danville, Virginia, the Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing program has graduated more than 100 people from a four-month course since it opened in 2021, teaching them to do work like welding and machining. Galinis said the program — a collaboration among the Defense Department, the state of Virginia, the Danville Community College and private entities — would produce 800 to 1,000 trained workers a year by 2025.
The admiral said the FY23 budget included money for this type of workforce development and training, but government alone can’t solve this problem.
Matt Sermon, the executive director for the Program Executive Office for Strategic Submarines, noted at the same conference a recent analysis showed the submarine industrial base will need to hire 100,000 people over the next 10 years for submarine construction alone, at the two main shipyards as well as their 17,000 vendors. This would cover the workforce needed to build one Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and two Virginia-class attack submarines each year.
A separate study is ongoing on the number of workers the industrial base and the Navy will have to hire in the next decade to conduct submarine maintenance work. Sermon said an initial estimate indicates that may total around 130,000 workers.
Galinis told Defense News this focus on people, while necessary, is coming at a cost to the Navy.
“Everything is going up,” he said, to include the cost of hiring, training and retaining a workforce, bringing in subcontractors to supplement the workforce, and buying materials for them to use.
“Everything from material to wages to just the cost of doing business is going up,” he said. “The other thing is, when you ask for an estimate on a job, that is only good for a very short period of time. … Things are just that dynamic in the materials market and the labor market.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.