- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Virginia’s largest industrial employer signed an agreement with Old Dominion University on Wednesday to allow some of its apprentices to earn a bachelor’s degree while they complete their apprenticeship program.

Newport News Shipbuilding is the only shipbuilder in the world to build aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy and one of two to build submarines for the Navy. For nearly a century, the company has relied on its apprentice program to help fill slots at its shipyard on the James River.

Those enrolled in the marine engineer apprenticeship will earn a bachelor of science degree in mechanical or electrical engineering. Students selected for the program will complete their apprenticeship and engineering degree in five to eight years.

In recent years, those apprenticeships have become increasingly competitive as the economy soured and college tuition costs skyrocketed.

The company selects about 250 apprentices each year out of about 6,000 applicants. In 1996, the company was getting about 500 applicants. Company officials say they anticipate those application numbers will continue to rise and that the new degree offerings will help contribute to that.

The apprentices are attractive, in part, because those selected are guaranteed a salary throughout their training and jobs paying up to $60,000 a year following the completion of their program, which typically takes at least four years.

Officials say they expect about 12 to 16 apprentices to enroll in a degree program at ODU, which the company will ultimately pay for.

“This is not just a degree program,” Everett Jordan, the Apprentice School’s director of education, said in a statement. “This program aligns academics with real-life, on-the-job utilization of skills in a 550-acre laboratory.”

Initially, students will have to travel to Norfolk to attend their classes at ODU. As the program grows, company officials hope to offer the classes in the same modern building the rest of its classes are taught in.

The school’s new building opened last year and has eight computer labs, two video teleconferencing classrooms, a physics lab and 600-seat gymnasium. The campus also includes workforce housing, retail space and a parking garage.

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