- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - The Virginia company that builds the nation’s aircraft carriers and some of its submarines plans to hire nearly 7,000 people in the next five years and will partner with the state to recruit and train those workers, officials said Tuesday.

The announcement reflects the growing need for skilled workers at shipyards that serve the U.S. Navy. It hopes to significantly expand its fleet of ships, from 284 to 355, in the coming decades.

The new jobs will support existing contracts to build and maintain subs and aircraft carriers at Newport News Shipbuilding, a sprawling facility that sits along the James River, not far from the world’s largest Navy base in Norfolk.

But the need for more specially trained workers could grow. The company that owns the shipyard, Huntington Ingalls Industries, has been in talks with the Navy about it possibly ordering two aircraft carriers at once to save costs. The vessels are using increasingly advanced technologies.

“Our mission is to be able to train our youth for these 21st Century jobs, such as shipbuilding,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said at a park adjacent to the shipyard.

The Democratic governor said his Secretary of Commerce and Trade will lead the partnership to ensure the shipyard and other companies get the skilled workers they need. The shipyard and the state will work with the Navy, schools and technical programs. Efforts also will be made to recruit veterans.

Newport News Shipbuilding President Jennifer Boykin said the company is competing with firms like Google and Microsoft as it recruits engineers, designers and people who specialize in information technology.

The firm’s current contracts are for building components of the Navy’s new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines as well as older Virginia-class submarines.

The shipyard also constructs the new Ford-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and overhauls older carriers at the midpoint of their 50-year lifespans.

Many of the shipyard’s new hires will replace retiring workers. But it will see a net gain of 2,000 jobs, bringing the workforce to about 25,000, Boykin said.

Increased military spending, including money for building and maintaining ships, is already benefiting Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, where 40 percent of the economy is tied to defense, said Robert M. McNab, an economics professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

McNab and his colleagues recently increased their 2018 economic growth forecast for the region from about 1.2 percent to about 2.2 percent, in large part because of the Pentagon’s spending.

He said incomes and hiring will increase. And the region may start attracting workers from other parts of the country - if defense spending is sustained.

But he said the challenge remains for Hampton Roads - and the United States - to build a skilled workforce “that can meld the trades with information technology and other skills.”

Another concern is whether politicians in Washington will support the idea of a 355-ship fleet over the long term.

“There will be a lot of good paying jobs where a man or a woman could support a family and not have to go to college,” said Bryan McGrath, deputy director at the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “But there has to be a national commitment.”

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