Public naval shipyards are working closely with private repair yards to coordinate workforce needs as the Navy navigates a peak of aircraft carrier and submarine work this fiscal year followed by a dip in work shortly after, the Naval Sea Systems Command’s deputy commander for logistics, maintenance and industrial operations told a House Armed Services Committee panel Thursday.
Rear Adm. Mark Whitney told the HASC readiness subcommittee that the public yards are nearing the end of a hiring spree to grow the workforce to 33,500 employees – a gain of about 9,000 new employees from 2013 to 2016 between the workforce growth and combating attrition.
However, that 33,500 figure will not cover the peak of work, he said, because hiring to the peak workload would mean letting many of those employees go shortly afterward. The public yards are currently conducting maintenance on three aircraft carriers and are about to begin a fourth, he said – “that’s a big chunk of aircraft carrier” – in addition to work on submarines.
To accomplish that work, “we’ve got several [Huntington Ingalls Industries] folks working right now on Bush [CVN-77] at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and will on Truman [CVN-75], and also out west to help in Puget Sound on USS Nimitz [CVN-68],” Whitney told the subcommittee.
“We’ve got more work to do, but we’re not going to get that workload peak done without private sector help.”
Still, both Newport News Shipbuilding and BAE Systems recently announced layoffs in their Norfolk-area yards. Whitney said those layoffs were not related to the Navy’s hiring spree but rather are “workload-related to each of those specific companies.”
The Navy did not immediately return a request for more information on the disparity between the workforce needs in the private versus public shipyards.
Whitney said the Navy and the private yards try to create a “one naval shipyard” approach to the overall workload, with quarterly discussions between HII and General Dynamics Electric Boat on upcoming workload down to the trade skill-level of detail, in the hopes of sharing personnel as needed to balance peaks and valleys.
Whitney added that they’ve made great progress in the last year ensuring that qualifications between the private yards and the pubic shipyards are the same, so a private welder does not need additional training and qualifications before performing welding work at a public yard, for example.
After seeing success in public-private collaboration on nuclear-powered submarines and carriers, “we’re evolving into that with the private sector in the surface ship world as well, so that’s more work to follow, but we’re using the same model.”
HASC readiness subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who represents part of the Hampton Roads area, asked what else the Navy could do to manage the ups and downs of labor needs. Among other ideas, he suggested “bringing forward deployed ships back to the United States t have work done here for those maintenance availabilities that may exceed six months – so the longer term work – to be brought back stateside. Using available congressionally approved appropriations to expedite the current cruiser modernization process to kind of again create some workload where you can manage those peaks and troughs. Looking at implementing public-private partnerships in the long term to do non-core work on our fleet.”
Whitney replied that the Navy pursues some alternate measures, including outsourcing lower-priority work like repairs on the Los Angeles-class attack subs (SSN-688), but would have to look into the feasibility of the other suggestions.
Also during the hearing, Wittman asked about the effect of operating under a continuing resolution through mid-December, as well as what would happen at the repair yards if the CR were extended even longer.
“Operating under a CR for the first three months of the year is, I’ll say it’s manageable.,” Whitney said.
“We have a good site visibility of the workload and what it’s going to take to execute that. If we go beyond the December timeframe then it becomes much more of a challenge balancing the risk associated with the hiring, with overtime, with material procurement as we progress through the rest of the year. … We’re okay with up to December, but it’s going to get very risky after that.”