President Trump has announced one of the largest peacetime expansions of the United States Navy. The 700-billion-dollar initiative has encouraged the markets to rise and is an ambitious display of American strength. If it can be done. Interviews with ship builders and labor unions reveal that there may not currently be enough skilled labor to complete the plan. By itself the plan may take up to thirty years assuming enough workers exist. The concern is not without cause public and internal documents showing that this may indeed be a temporary,but real,obstacle. Many of the workers that would ostensibly be employed in these projects, have not yet been hired or trained.
The plan calls for increasing the size of the U.S Fleet from 275 to 350 ships. A large and expensive increase. The lack of labor availability highlights an even more problematic concern. The U.S is as at a disadvantage in the skilled labor market. We have a deficiency in highly skilled steel workers, welders,and other jobs traditionally considered “blue collar.”Part of this comes from lower demand. Shipyards and suppliers have been weathering years of low demand, and thus lower training and employment. The emphasis on college and white collar careers as being a superior path has also discouraged some from entering as skilled laborers. This lack of labor could be dangerous in the event of a sudden need for infrastructure development or military buildup. General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls both announced plans to increase hiring in these key areas. Electric Boat, a subsidy of General Dynamics, announced their plan was to hire 2,000 workers. Huntington Ingalls,which is the largest provider of ships and shipbuilding services to the U.S Navy,announced they would be hiring at least 4,000, 3,000 at its Newport News yard in Norfolk Virginia, and another 1,000 in Mississippi. Many companies are willing to work with Trump’s plan but cannot afford to hire and train workers without a guaranteed contract, something that will require congressional approval of the military budget. Many smaller companies must be cautious since they cannot as easily afford the risk of mass hiring as their larger competitors. In an interview with Reuters, Jill Mackie the spokeswoman for Vigor Industrial said “You can’t hire people to do nothing," "Until funding is there ... you can’t bring on more workers." Until congress approves the orders, there will be a tentative expectation only.
If a shipbuilding increase does materialize, there will be some chaos as companies must rapidly reprioritize work and hire on new labor. The need for skilled welders is already very high and quite expensive. Specialist pipeline welders can make up to $300,000 a year for their labor. Security clearances are another hurdle that many current laborers cannot overcome. Many clearances require a clean criminal record that minor offences or drug use may disqualify applicants from.
To preemptively solve anticipated shortages General Dynamics has partnered with seven trade schools and high schools in Rhode Island and Connecticut. They hope to train a new generation of laborers from the ground up in the skills that are likely to be in high demand soon. Maura Dunn, vice president of human resources at Electric Boat had said that it usually “takes five years to get someone proficient in shipbuilding.”Some of the skills that are required to build the highly advanced Nuclear Submarines may take up to seven years to learn to do the welding alone. These are clearly highly difficult and highly advanced jobs.
The popular conception of blue collar work needs to be fought vigorously. Without skilled laborers the United States is in a perilous financial and strategic position. These skills will have a wide and vast application beyond the military world. Many businesses rely on skilled labor. These training programs may encourage students to take alternate paths from traditional college degrees and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in skill-specific fields. A deep rethinking of how education is provided is needed to supply trained, and well paid labor to the market. Trade schools and high schools should have dedicated relationships with technical partners in both the corporate and military world. Defense contracting companies would be wise to begin training their next generation of skilled workers at a young age. Teaching students that there are many paths to be successful and to have an honorable and worthwhile career is a needed investment that can’t come too soon. If enough programs are implemented skilled American labor may once again be a mainstay of the middle class.
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