Missing from Trump’s grand Navy plan — skilled workers

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump says he wants to build dozens of new warships in one of the biggest peace-time expansions of the US Navy.
But interviews with ship-builders, unions and a review of public and internal documents show major obstacles to that plan.
The initiative could cost nearly $700 billion in government funding, take 30 years to complete and require hiring tens of thousands of skilled shipyard workers — many of whom don’t exist yet because they still need to be hired and trained, according to the interviews and the documents reviewed.
Trump has vowed a huge build-up of the US military to project American power in the face of an emboldened China and Russia.
That includes expanding the Navy to 350 warships from 275 today.
He has provided no specifics, including how soon he wants the larger fleet. (For graphics on projected strength of US Navy, shipyard employment see: http://tmsnrt.rs/2n3vOr0)
The Navy has given Defence Secretary Jim Mattis a report that explores how the country’s industrial base could support higher ship production, Admiral Bill Moran, the vice chief of Naval Operations with oversight of the Navy’s shipbuilding outlook, said.
He declined to give further details.
But those interviewed for this story say there are clearly two big issues — there are not enough 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 struggle to ramp up for years.
To be sure, the first, and biggest, hurdle for Trump to overcome is to persuade a cost-conscious Congress to fund the military buildup.
The White House declined to comment.
A Navy spokeswoman said increases being considered beyond the current shipbuilding plan would require “sufficient time” to allow companies to ramp up capacity.
The two largest US shipbuilders, General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc, said they are planning to hire a total of 6,000 workers in 2017 just to meet current orders, such as the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine.
General Dynamics hopes to hire 2,000 workers at Electric Boat this year.
Currently projected order levels would already require the shipyard to grow from less than 15,000 workers, to nearly 20,000 by the early 2030s, company documents reviewed by Reuters show.
Huntington Ingalls, the largest US military shipbuilder, plans to hire 3,000 at its Newport News shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, and another 1,000 at the Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi this year to fulfil current orders, spokeswoman Beci Brenton said.
Companies say they are eager to work with Trump to build his bigger Navy.
But expanding hiring, for now, is difficult to do until they receive new orders, officials say.
“It’s hard to look beyond” current orders, Brenton said. Smaller shipbuilders and suppliers are also cautious.
“You can’t hire people to do nothing,” said Jill Mackie, spokeswoman for Portland, Oregon-based Vigor Industrial LLC, which makes combat craft for the Navy’s Special Warfare units. “Until funding is there… you can’t bring on more workers.”
Because companies won’t hire excess workers in advance, they will have a huge challenge in expanding their workforces rapidly if a shipbuilding boom materialises, said Bryan Clark, who led strategic planning for the Navy as special assistant to the chief of Naval Operations until 2013.
Union and shipyard officials say finding skilled labour just for the work they already have is challenging.
Demand for pipeline welders is so strong that some can make as much as $300,000 per year, including overtime and benefits, said Danny Hendrix, the business manager at Pipeliners Local 798, a union representing 6,500 metal workers in 42 states.
Much of the work at the submarine yards also requires a security clearance that many can’t get, said Jimmy Hart, president of the Metal Trades Department at the AFL-CIO union, which represents 100,000 boilermakers, machinists, and pipefitters, among others. — Reuters