James River Shipbuilder

Newport News Shipbuilding

Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the largest industrial employer in Virginia, thanks to being the sole shipbuilder of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and only one of two builders of Navy submarines. David Soyka reports on the opportunities in manufacturing that serve both the nation and the local economy.

Join the Navy and see the world.” That’s the U.S. Navy recruiting slogan. The slogan of Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is “Always Good Ships,” reflecting its 130 year history of design, construction, overhaul and repair of over 800 naval and commercial ships. But it could also be, “Join Newport News Shipbuilding and see a world of career opportunities.”


Case in point is Rob Hogan, a 40-year company veteran who, like many other company executives, got started in the shipyard and worked his way up. Currently the vice president of manufacturing and supply chain management, Hogan was hired as a welder back in 1976. Over his term of service, Hogan graduated from the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School, earned a degree in business administration and assumed diverse supervisory and leadership roles. He is a recipient of the company’s annual President’s Model of Excellence Award in recognition of his leading various process improvement initiatives. A past chairperson of the Virginia Manufacturers Association (VMA), Hogan also serves on the board of directors for CCAM (Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing). In addition, he is active in the American Welding Society, and the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.


“I’m the living, breathing example of the many challenges and rewards of a career in manufacturing, and specifically here at Newport News” Hogan says. “And I’m not unique in this. In fact, we have a program here called ‘Master Shipbuilders’ that celebrates employees with 40 years of continuous service or more. We currently have more than 800 active Master Shipbuilders.”

As the sole designer, shipbuilder and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers (also the only shipyard to perform carrier inactivation) and only one of two builders of Navy submarines, NNS employs about 20,000 people in total, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation shipbuilders, and generates about $4 billion in annual revenues. This makes Newport News the largest industrial employer in the state (it used to be the largest private employer before Wal-Mart came to Virginia). Strategically positioned on 550 acres at the mouth of the James River, the company is, needless to say, an economic driver of the city of Newport News, the fifth largest city in terms of population in Virginia.


The city’s location at the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula and the northern shore of the James River bordering the Atlantic Ocean provides miles of waterfront and harbor. It was a fishing village until after the Civil War when railroads and the establishment of the shipyard made it a hub of economic development, which continues today.


“We’re fortunate that because of the tradition of shipbuilding and the maritime industry here in the area, we have a good labor pool to draw upon,” Hogan notes. “Every business has its up and down cycles, but as a government contractor we’re particularly susceptible to last minute budget holdups and changing priorities. Consequently, we understaff as a way to keep our people working during slowdowns. When things pick up and we need more capacity, we can either hire people pretty quickly or outsource certain activities.”


That said, Hogan notes there have been times when layoffs were unavoidable. “Fortunately, because we have a military base in the area as well as other maritime businesses, some people are able to get new jobs. And when we’re back on an upcycle and some of those businesses are in a lull, we’re more than happy to welcome these people back,” Hogan says. “If you have the skills, someone here is going to want you.”


Manufacturing for the Millennial Generation

Hogan notes that, “Fifteen years ago if you said manufacturing was a good career choice, people might have shaken their heads. The image of manufacturing then was repetitive, dirty work that wasn’t particularly high paying and that didn’t offer much in the way of job security.


“But, that’s all changed, and the most significant thing that has changed is technology. There’s a lot more automation, but that automation hasn’t necessarily eliminated jobs, but rather created new ones. And it’s created more opportunities to more quickly advance into needed job categories. For instance, it used to take three to five years for us to train a new welder to get to the level of proficiency we require. Today, thanks to advancements in technology, the learning curve is closer to two years.”


While pointing out that skilled trades such as welders and mechanics have high earning potential, Hogan emphasizes that advanced technology is making manufacturing not only more efficient, but makes manufacturing as attractive to the Millennial generation as any high-tech startup.


Digital Shipbuilding

“NNS is at the forefront of technological innovation,” Hogan says. “We’re currently in the process of revolutionizing our entire manufacturing process to become a digital shipbuilding environment. 3-D modelling enables us to envision and validate design elements before we get to the actual construction phase, and make many necessary changes that before we’d have to do during production. Also, imagine that a shipbuilder has an iPad that provides immediate, searchable access to naval drawings. Instead of fumbling around with bulky blueprints every time you need to check a spec, you just pull it up on your iPad. That increases worker efficiency and reduces costs. Every manufacturer, particularly those in the public sector, strives to achieve that.”


He adds that new technology is not only absolutely critical to shipbuilding, but also the operation of new warships. “From the outside you may think one aircraft carrier looks pretty much like any other aircraft carrier,” Hogan says. “But the sophisticated systems that literally make the ship run are vastly different. The Gerald R. Ford class carrier that we’re currently building is the first ship designed using 3D modelling; it is a completely new class that requires fewer sailors to maintain operations because of the technology it utilizes. It replaces the Nimitz class, which we first launched in 1972, that ended the era of boiler-powered ships.”


The first carrier in the new class is the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) launched in November 2013. Construction is currently underway on the next carrier, John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). Shipbuilders are also completing the refueling and complex overhaul of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), and the inactivation of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the first carrier to undergo the process. NNS is also building nine Virginia-class submarines with their teaming partners at General Dynamics Electric Boat.


Partnering with Virginia

Hogan emphasizes that as much as NNS is a key contributor to both the local city as well as the overall state economies, state and local support underpins many of its successful initiatives. “We received a number of grants to help us expand our apprentice school, where we just recently graduated 170 new apprentices, starting yet another generation of shipbuilders,” he says. “NNS also works with local community colleges on developing programs for students to attain the skills that can be put to work with us and other maritime and manufacturing industries. We also work closely with the state Department of Environmental Quality to ensure our employees have the safest and cleanest workplaces possible.”


He adds, “We also seek to give back to the community wherever possible. We just cut the ribbon last March on the thirteenth NNS built Habitat for Humanity house. And we have a variety of programs to do such things as honor veterans and promote heart health.”


As a member of VMA, Hogan praises the organization’s ability to work with the state and some 5,000 manufacturers to foster a world-class environment to conduct business. “Through the VMA, we’re able to work collectively on a variety of research and development programs, workforce training, business- friendly tax policies and networking with suppliers and other manufacturers.”


Which is why NNS builds ships that go around the world, but is happy to call Virginia home.


Headquartered in Newport News, Va., Huntington Ingalls Industries is the largest military shipbuilder in the United States, having built more ships in more ship classes than any other U.S. naval shipbuilder, accounting for over 70 percent of the warship fleet. Comprising shipbuilding operations in Newport News, Va. and Pascagoula, Miss., with ancillary operations in Louisiana, Colorado, Texas, California and Florida, the company employs about 36,000 worldwide. The company also provides manufacturing, engineering and management services to the nuclear energy, oil and gas sectors in addition to its core shipbuilding business. Railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington founded the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company in 1886, which subsequently became Newport News Shipbuilding. Robert Ingersoll Ingalls Sr. expanded his blacksmith and forging business into Ingalls Shipbuilding on the east bank of Mississippi’s Singing River in Pascagoula in 1938. The company name that honors the two founders came into being in 2013 when Northrop Grumman spun off shipbuilding operations that comprised the two shipyards. “Industries” was added to denote the company’s expansion to provide services to adjacent markets, particularly the energy industry.

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