MOBILE, Alabama — As John Lotshaw sees it, there’s a difficult job ahead of him.
The director of operations, workforce training and development at Huntington-Ingalls Industries, the parent company of Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, has to hire up to 2,000 new workers for the shipyard in the next 12 months.
It’s not new work behind the number of positions available, rather, it’s older workers who are retiring and leaving unfilled spaces behind in an industry where the average age of the workforce just keeps climbing.
“The ability to support the industry base for those skill sets at this time is very concerning,” said Vic Rhoades, director of BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards Alabama in Mobile. “The industry really hasn’t done a good job in getting the word out to younger generations about this industry. As a result, those of us who are baby boomers want our kids to go to college.
“Young people don’t see this as a viable career path.”
Many in the industry cite a weak educational infrastructure and lack of advertising as the biggest hurdles in trying to get the attention of young workers. The average age of an employee at a major shipyard in southern Alabama or Mississippi is mid-forties.
“We have to make sure people understand the full picture of what we’re offering,” Lotshaw said. “There’s a very clear and proven career path in shipbuilding that leads to a very good, achievable, transferable career in the manufacturing industry. It is a skill set that a person can fall back on no matter what he does for the rest of his life. We need to make sure we clearly explain that case to government officials and schools.”
The nation’s commercial shipyards employ more than 50,000 workers to build and maintain non-Navy vessels, according to the Shipbuilders Council of America, the national trade association representing the U.S. shipyard industry.
Include the workers building ships for the U.S. Navy, and the number exceeds 100,000.
Lotshaw estimates thousands of those workers along the Gulf Coast will retire within the next decade. Adding to the headache of Baby Boomers leaving the manufacturing workforce, skilled craftsmen are already in short supply, he said.
Large shipyards such as Ingalls and Mobile’s Austal USA and BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards Alabama have turned to their own, sometimes extensive, internal training to combat the diminishing number of skilled craftsman in the workforce.
“If you talk to people in the shipbuilding industry, this problems exists everywhere — finding skilled workers,” Lotshaw said. “It’s broader than just the maritime industry. With contraction in industry and lack of incentive for people to enter the craft for a number a years, the result has been a stagnant workforce.”
Ingalls employs about 9,500 people in Pascagoula and 500 in Gulfport, building destroyers and amphibious transport ships for the Navy and national security cutters for the Coast Guard. Lotshaw said the average age of the Ingalls Mississippi workforce is about 43.
He said the company finds workers through an active partnership with the Mississippi community college system as well as a broader network of technical schools as far away as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Jacksonville, Florida. Ingalls also brings in up to 2,000 people a year through its own internal training program.
“Because some of the skill sets for shipbuilding are shipbuilding unique, we’ve worked with the schools to develop the right kind of curriculum,” he said. “We have a need for about 2,000 employees a year.”
Ingalls is also anticipating the completion of the Haley Reeves Barbour Maritime Training Academy training facility, set to be finished in March in Pascagoula. The $20 million, 76,000-square-foot academy is funded through Hurricane Katrina recovery money and will help Ingalls more than double its two- to four-year apprenticeship program from the 300 students it currently has.
BAE, one of the largest defense contractors in the world, has 650 full-time employees in Mobile and is in the midst of ramping up to 800 for its mostly commercial orderbook. Rhoades said only 14 percent of its workforce in Mobile is under 30, with the average employee age around 45.
Rhoades said the hardest skills to find are pipe fitters and welders, a problem that is not unique to the Gulf Coast. He said BAE invests heavily in workforce development programs and on-the-job training to grow its own stock of workers, a practice that’s one of the most important aspects of the business.
“As our craftspeople retire, they take decades of valuable experience with them,” he said. “We try to attract young people who are eager to learn about earning a good wage. They can get unparalleled experience in the trade of their choice.”
Rhoades said BAE utilizes resources provided by community colleges and internships, and hires directly from Alabama Industrial Development Training’s Maritime Training Center in Mobile. That $12 million facility, opened on the Causeway in January 2011, resembles stacks of shipping containers from around the world. It is split in half with one side used by Austal and the other by AIDT, a training arm of the state’s two-year college system.
As of mid-May, more than 700 people had gone through the center.
The shipyard also hires entry-level engineering or management employees directly from the University of South Alabama and has established internships with four major universities outside of the of state.
“The bottom line is, the shipyards have good jobs and they need people,” Rhoades said. “We are working with city officials to figure out how to work with schools’ administrations to reestablish vocational training as an alternative for those that don’t want to go to college.”
Austal, which has about 3,000 employees and is expected to add another 1,000 in the next year, has slightly younger workers, with the average age at 36 and 27 percent of its workforce under 30.
Austal spokesman Don Keeler said the company has hired more than 700 new employees who have completed a pre-employment training program through Austal’s partnership with AIDT. The shipyard also invests in an apprenticeship program and on-job-training that allows an employee to gain skills while working.
The growth of the aviation industry in southern Alabama, especially given Airbus’ recent announcement of a new final assembly line in Mobile, also is a concern of major shipbuilders in the area.
Rhoades said shipbuilding and aviation manufacturing share many of the same skills sets and that he believes many of the companies along the Gulf are worried about their ability to attract skilled laborers once Airbus sets up shop.
Keeler disagreed, saying Airbus and other possible aviation-related companies would cause concern only if the community had no room to grow. As new jobs lure people to the Gulf Coast, Austal plans to take advantage of the opportunity, he said.
“We will need to ensure that our compensation and benefits are market competitive, but that has always been our focus whether we are competing with BAE, ThyssenKrupp or Huntington-Ingalls,” Keeler said. “We welcome the aerospace sector and expect that the Mobile-area talent pool will increase in size.”
Rhoades isn’t convinced.
“It’s not just me that’s ramping up,” he said. “We all have the same skill sets, same requirements. There’s just not enough of skilled folks to meet the demands.”AL.com by: Ellen Mitchell, Press-Register August 4, 2012