Newport News Fosters Home-grown Talent

By Eric Haun

Newport News’ Apprentice School seeks to go beyond training workers; it seeks to build leaders.

The Apprentice School at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ (HII) Newport News Shipbuilding division offers an invaluable educational and career opportunity for those seeking a profession in shipbuilding, but the school’s benefits extend much further than that. Within the HII business, the company uses the program to groom its apprentices for leadership roles within its managerial and corporate ladder.
Students accepted into The Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia enter tuition-free apprenticeships that provide an opportunity to earn college credit, receive competitive pay and benefits and, most importantly, learn a useful trade on which to build a career. Upon commencement, Apprentice School graduates are highly skilled workers prepared to further impel Newport News’s tradition in building world-leading naval vessels.
Perhaps just as important to the training aspect of this story is the radically different place that HII finds itself – in comparison to many of its peers – especially in terms of its efforts to recruit, train and retain talent in the highly competitive shipyard game. Amidst countless stories lamenting the dearth of qualified craftsmen on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the HII formula produces a different result, with thousands of desirable candidates banging on the door to get in on the action. How HII accomplishes all of this just might surprise you. After discovering how, you probably won’t wonder why.

The Program
Since its founding in 1919, The Apprentice School has produced more than 9,800 graduates who are skilled in various aspects of the shipbuilding trade, the vast majority of which have landed careers within the shipbuilding field – mostly at the Newport News yard, although graduates are not required to stay within the HII group. Currently, about 13.5% of Newport News Shipbuilding’s 23,700 employees are Apprentice School graduates.
Apprenticeships last anywhere from four to eight years, depending on the chosen curriculum, which could be one of 19 specially tailored shipbuilding disciplines with eight optional advanced programs of study. These careers include coatings specialist, electrician, maintenance electrician, heating and air conditioning, heavy metal fabricator, insulator, machinist, millwright, molder, nondestructive tester, outside machinist, patternmaker, pipefitter, rigger, sheet metal worker, shipfitter, welder, welding equipment repair and other advanced disciplines such as shipyard operations, cost estimator, dimensional control technician, marine designer, molding and simulation program analyst, nuclear test technician, production planner and marine engineer.
Apprentices work a regular 40-hour week and are paid for all work, including time spent in academic classes. They attend classes two full days a week and spend the other three days in labs gaining hands-on technical instruction and experience. The curriculum encompasses on-the-job training with a strong foundation in shipbuilding discipline theory. In total, each apprentice completes at least 1,000 hours of coursework in the Trade Related Education Curriculum (TREC) and World Class Shipbuilder Curriculum (WCSC).
Through partnerships with Thomas Nelson Community College, Tidewater Community College and most recently, Old Dominion University, the school’s academic program provides an opportunity to earn associate degrees in business administration, engineering and engineering technology and bachelor’s degrees in mechanical or electrical engineering.
The Apprentice School’s fulltime academic instructors create classroom experiences to prepare apprentices for work in their shipbuilding trades, to continue their education in one of the school’s advanced programs and to further their education through Newport News Shipbuilding’s Educational Assistance Program, through courses in business, communications, drafting, mathematics, physics and ship construction. Additionally, more than 70 craft instructors (who are all Apprentice School graduates) pitch in to assist in the development of core leadership principles and craftsmanship essential for a successful shipbuilding career, help trainees to develop targeted skill sets, document the apprentices’ development and provide regular evaluations.

High-tech Facilities

Due to the unique nature and high specificity of the apprenticeships, The Apprentice School and its leadership are structured within Newport News Shipbuilding, which designs, builds and maintains some of the most complex and technologically advanced nuclear and nonnuclear ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and provides after-market services for military ships around the globe. And because The Apprentice school is located on-site at Newport News Shipbuilding, the school has access to state-of-the-art facilities that range from traditional classrooms to 2.5 miles of waterfront production facilities on the James River, including one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest dry docks and cranes, one of the world’s premier machine shops and steel fabrication facilities, extensive sheet metal and wood working shops, a complete motor rebuild and repair shop, a complete propulsion shaft repair facility with capacity up to 65 tons, high-capacity pump and valve repair and calibration facilities and a full range of laboratory services.
In December 2013, The Apprentice School opened a new 92,000-square-foot facility as part of a development project pioneering the revitalization of the downtown Newport News area in partnership with the City of Newport News, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Armada Hoffler Holding Co. and Huntington Ingalls Industries. The modern facility houses classrooms, computer labs, a naval architect and marine engineering room, physics lab, various offices, a conference room, student center and even a gymnasium. Notably, the school has three NCAA Division III athletic programs.

Leadership 101

Though the program serves as an excellent career builder for professionals seeking entrance into various spaces within the shipbuilding field, the school also helps foster leadership within the HII company. Among Apprentice School alumni are three of the group’s current vice presidents, along with countless other leaders in managerial and directorial positions throughout the group, including about 55% of the yard’s production management team.
“The Apprentice School is considered to be the leadership academy for our company, and others refer to us as the backbone of our company,” explained Everett Jordan, a 1977 Apprentice School shipfitter alumnus and now the school’s educational director. “Our charter is to take young men and women and develop them in terms of craftsmanship, scholarship and leadership so that they will integrate into our leadership team and help to run our business for the next several decades.”
Jordan continued, “A lot of folks find it very difficult to believe that we invest in our students the way that we do yet don’t require any service commitment once they graduate. We feel strongly that if we can’t create an environment where our graduates are engaged, energized and excited to work at our company with limitless promotional opportunities and career advancements, then we really don’t want to force someone to stay if they’re not inclined. Being a large company like we are, there are untold numbers of promotional opportunities that are posted every week in a company like ours. Our apprentices very quickly integrate into our leadership team and some 240 different job capacities.”
As such, demand to enter the program is high, and the school has become very selective. The Apprentice School anticipates upwards of 6,000 applicants in 2014, while only 230 will be accepted. The school’s current student body of roughly 825 students is comprised of apprentices from 24 states, while slightly more than half are from Virginia’s tidewater region. The school seeks applicants with strong leadership qualities, academic records, community service, etc. – similar criteria to most colleges and universities – and characteristics that HII deems necessary for the development of skilled leaders.
In real practice, Newport News Shipbuilding typically attracts a mix of skilled and unskilled labor, hiring between 1,500 and 2,000 employees annually with better than 85% remaining employed at the end of their first year. Internal training systems are deployed so that unskilled workers can progress to an entry journeyman level over a three- year period. The Apprentice School, on the other hand, hires approximately 220 apprentices annually who enter apprenticeships ranging from four to eight years in length. During their apprenticeship, students are exposed to extensive leadership development generally culminating in graduates entering into salary jobs or management positions throughout Newport News Shipbuilding.  Ten years after graduation, 82% remain at NNS.
“We grow our own from within,” Jordan said. “The leadership of our company really appreciates the contributions the school makes in terms of producing outstanding graduates who stay with the company and make a career with the company.” For those employees and companies on the outside looking in, it is a model worth studying. Better still; one worth duplicating elsewhere.

(As published in the 3Q 2014 edition of Maritime Professional -

Maritime Logistics Professional Magazine, page 58,  Q3 2014

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