President Trump has proposed building dozens of new warships in one of the most sizable peacetime expansions of the U.S. Navy, but there is currently a shortage of skilled shipyard workers qualified to construct the fleet.
Reuters’ interviews with shipbuilders and unions and their review of public and internal documents revealed that Trump’s initiative is estimated to cost nearly $700 billion in government funding and take 30 years to accomplish. Building the warships would also require the hiring of tens of thousands of skilled shipyard workers, an asset that America does not yet have since many must be hired and trained.
In response to an emboldened China and Russia, Trump has promised to strengthen the U.S. military to project American power. His plan includes expanding the number of navy warships to 350 from the current number of 275. Specifics of the plan have not yet been provided, nor is it known how soon the president wants the larger fleet delivered.
According to Admiral Bill Moran, the vice chief of Naval Operations with oversight of the Navy’s shipbuilding outlook, the Navy has given Defense Secretary James Mattis a report outlining the capability of America’s industrial base to support increased ship production. But Reuters’ sources cite two big challenges with Trump’s plan—there are too few skilled workers in the market, from electricians to welders, and after years of historically low production, shipyards and their suppliers, including nuclear fuel producers, will take years to develop resources to meet new demand.
The two major U.S. shipbuilders, General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. have plans to hire a total of 6,000 workers in 2017 just to fulfill current orders, such as for the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine.
Should Trump’s shipbuilding initiative be approved, companies will face a huge challenge in expanding their workforces rapidly. Union and shipyard officials already have a problem finding skilled labor for the work they already have. The strong demand for pipeline welders has some workers currently earning as much as $300,000 per year, including overtime and benefits.
Many of the jobs at submarine yards require a security clearance that many workers cannot acquire, said Jimmy Hart, president of the Metal Trades Department at the AFL-CIO union, which represents 100,000 boilermakers, machinists, and pipefitters, among others.
To assist in the development of a larger labor force, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat has partnered with seven high schools and trade schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island to offer a curriculum to train future welders and engineers.
“It has historically taken five years to get someone proficient in shipbuilding,” said Maura Dunn, vice president of human resources at Electric Boat. It can take up to seven years to train welders capable of completing complex welding jobs.
As envisioned by Trump, the Navy could create more than 50,000 jobs, according to the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade group representing U.S. shipbuilders.
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