The labor shortage hit the shipyards hard. Can technology help Newport News get back on its feet?

CVN-80 Structure

A portion of CVN-80’s stern is held in place by Newport News Shipbuilding’s towering crane, nicknamed “Big Blue.”

WASHINGTON — Amid an economy still reeling from the spikes of the coronavirus pandemic, officials at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding say a technology transition years in the making is helping them battle a job market. hard.

When HII puts the last USS Enterprise (CVN-80) into the water later this decade, it will be the “first time in our history, and I believe in the history of the Navy, that the ship is not just designed in 3D.” [computer-aided design] tool, but now we’re taking that 3D information and putting it into a digital device and letting our shipbuilders build with that,” said Brian Fields, NNS vice president for aircraft carriers Enterprise and the next carrier to be built. the Doris Miller (CVN-81).

3D technology is part of a larger modernization push that also includes the digitization of thousands of paper records and design documents, the pace of which has been determined by the time it takes to develop software up to the task.

“We use an analogy: it is like driving through downtown [Washington] DC with a paper map versus [using] Waze,” Fields told reporters this weekend, referring to a popular smartphone navigation app. “That’s so important because with the number of new shipbuilders that we’re bringing into the company now, and over the next five or 10 years, we see their competitive time collapsing.”

The proliferation of technology, which is widely used to assemble the Navy’s next aircraft carrier inside the company’s dry dock off the James River, is playing a key role in training new employees who come into the shipyard faster, to despite growing hiring difficulties as the country recovers from the damage caused by COVID-19. “We can give them more difficult jobs without the same supervision because they know what is being asked of them,” Fields said of his employees.

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The national labor shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in most industries across the country, and shipbuilders are no exception. One of HII’s main competitors in the US Navy’s shipbuilding world, General Dynamics, told Breaking Defense in February that people were the company’s “biggest challenge” at its shipyard with headquartered in San Diego.

Shipbuilders are particularly vulnerable to ups and downs in the job market because work, even in the best of times, often fluctuates from year to year. When defense budgets are high and the Navy is trusted by lawmakers, shipbuilders reap the benefits of having multiple ships in production, which translates into the freedom to hire and train new workers en masse. But when budgets go down, so do payrolls. That results in shipbuilders being forced to furlough or lay off people simply because there isn’t enough pipeline work to keep everyone busy.

“They’re out, they’re back, they’re out, they’re back,” Rick Giannini, president of an industry coalition representing the aircraft carrier supply base, told reporters about hiring before COVID-19.

It’s a difficult balance, but the defense industry had gotten used to trying to strike it. Then the coronavirus spread globally and all bets were off.

“They started dating. [but] they’re not going to come back… By the end of the year, we’re down 10 or 12 percent,” Giannini said of his own business, a valve manufacturing company.

The view from inside the dry dock

While the shift from stacks of paper to laptops and tablets is, in theory, a big step forward, that doesn’t mean it’s without growth issues. While speaking to reporters last Friday, the shipbuilders described the cultural challenges inherent in conducting the exchange.

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“You know, the thing is, these guys have been here for 40 years, 30 years. They’re used to seeing it one way, so they have to adapt,” said Rodney Taylor, NNS foreman at CVN-80.

“But I like the fact that when I’m planning, it goes a long way. In fact, I can look at the work before I get my hands on it and get a better understanding of the placement. [and the] requirements necessary to perform the job. It helps tremendously in that aspect, but… I’m still learning it,” she added.

Todd Meier, a NNS facilities engineer who served as a deckhand on the former Enterprise (CVN-65) and worked on the ship as a shipyard employee while it was being decommissioned, said that while digital tools helped train and qualify new workers, there are some tricks to get the job done that have to be experienced.

“There is an urgency to capture that skill set that goes out the door every year due to retirement and attrition. And those skill sets can only be physically taught,” he said of the tricks and methods welders use to complete more difficult welds or get to hard-to-reach areas.

How much these new tools will speed up the final build of CVN-80 and CVN-81, only time will tell. But the metrics are sure to be closely watched by both HII and the US Navy, as both eye the possibility of another block purchase for CVN-82 ​​and CVN-83.

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