Facing a raft of retirements, BIW casts a wide net in hiring efforts

September 3, 2019

Bath Iron Works is known for building Navy warships from the ground up, but if it wants to stay in business it has to do the same to its workforce.

The shipyard is in the midst of a massive hiring push to finish a backlog of ship work and reinforce its army of mechanics, many of whom are nearing retirement age.

With Maine’s historically low 3 percent unemployment rate and a statewide skilled labor shortage, BIW can’t afford to be picky – it is investing heavily to recruit hundreds of workers, even those with no relevant experience, and train them in-house.

“It is definitely reflective of the labor market as it stands today,” said BIW Human Resources Director Jon Mason. “Ten years ago, I could post a requisition and get a lot of applications; these days we have to approach it a little differently.”

Sailors stand at the rail of the USS Michael Murphy, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer built at BIW. The yard is ramping up hiring as it faces a backlog of work and impending retirements. AP file photo

The shipyard needs to move fast. It has contracts to build 11 new DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the Navy over the next eight years, as well as to perform maintenance and upgrade work for operating ships, and finish work on the third and final Zumwalt-class destroyer.

BIW has increased its manufacturing staff by 1,000 workers since last year and plans to hire the same number in 2020, Mason said. A bigger labor force can build ships faster, and improve the shipyard’s chances of getting big Navy contracts in the future.

Years of work isn’t the only reason for BIW’s hiring kick. The company, a division of General Dynamics, will soon have to replace about a quarter of its 4,000 manufacturing employees who are eligible for retirement, and hire more workers every year to deal with future attrition.

“I don’t even like referring to these as jobs – these are careers,” Mason said. “Just given the workload now, this is not a temporary hire that is gone in a few years.”

TRAINING ACADEMY EXPANDED

A centerpiece of the shipyard’s new hiring strategy is a training academy in a Brunswick Landing machine shop about 7 miles away from the shipyard.

Since the beginning of the year, 700 entry-level employees have come through the course, where they learn safety and basic manufacturing skills. General laborers train for two weeks, while specialists like pipefitters and shipfitters take more than a month.

Before 2014, BIW didn’t have a formal training program. The shipyard made so few hires that skilled new employees could learn on the job from veterans, Mason said.

But when BIW boosted hiring five years ago, it created dedicated training programs at the shipyard. Last year it established the academy and recently added a second shift to keep up with the volume of new workers.

The company also broadened hiring – people with limited or no manufacturing experience, opening the door to workers with backgrounds in retail and restaurants willing to go through training.

Ryan Morse, 26, left, and Miranda Schaubhut, 22, inside one of the classrooms at the Bath Iron Works training facility at Brunswick Landing. Both got their training there and now Morse is working as a shipfitter and Schaubhut as a welder. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Miranda Schaubhut is one of those workers. Before she applied at BIW about a year ago, Schaubhut, 22, was selling cruises, shuffling papers and hating it. Now, she’s a full-time welder.

Her boyfriend, who works at the shipyard, persuaded her to apply.

“He was always talking about how great it was, he was always trying to get people to come out here,” she said.

Schaubhut wanted to get into design, then considered a carpentry apprenticeship. When there were no spots available, she switched to welding, even though she didn’t know the first thing about it. That wasn’t a problem.

“I thought I might as well do it,” Schaubhut said. “I did not want to have a desk job anymore.”

RECRUITING BEYOND MAINE, EVEN AT GILLETTE STADIUM

BIW wants more workers like Schaubhut, and the company is casting a wide net outside its traditional southern Maine labor pool.

Recruiters are reaching into Vermont and New Hampshire community colleges and even held an event last week at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. For those worried about a long commute, BIW offers a $3,500 relocation bonus.

It also touts a $16 entry-level wage, a benefit suite with health insurance, pension and other retirement benefits, and raises through a collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6.

A representative of the national union did not respond to an interview request Friday.

The shipyard and Southern Maine Community College have also, with government grants, set up free welding and manufacturing certificate programs for unemployed and underemployed workers. BIW guarantees all graduates a job interview but they are not required to work there.

“We are funding into a program when we may not necessarily have people work for us on the back end,” Mason said.

“The entire state is dealing with a workforce crisis and we are working with the community college system to address that, get them trained up and get employers the workers they need.”

WIDESPREAD WORKFORCE CHALLENGES

As one of Maine’s largest private employers, BIW is in a unique position, but other companies are trying similar hiring strategies, said Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman.

“We are seeing more and more Maine employers make workforce development a top priority,” Fortman said.

Companies for years complained there were not enough qualified workers in Maine.

Now, many are taking it upon themselves to provide the training and development to build the workforce they want, including skyrocketing participation in the state’s apprenticeship program, Fortman said.

“I do think it is moving the needle,” Fortman said. “Not only are we seeing investing in skills development, there are wages that are very competitive and benefits. We are starting to see that across the board as well.”

The efforts of BIW and other Maine employers align with the national employment picture, said Ryan Nunn, policy director at the Hamilton Project, an economic research center at the Brookings Institution.

In leaner economic times, employers could be more selective about whom they hired, but 10 years into an economic recovery from the Great Recession companies have to relax job requirements, Nunn said.

“As we get into this situation of much tighter labor markets, employers need to look more broadly for workers and need to be more open to accepting workers who are less immediately prepared for work and doing that training themselves,” he said.

“I think in many labor markets it is incumbent on employers to think creatively about who else is available to work in those positions.”

MAKING A CAREER

Ryan Morse, 26, started full time at BIW four months ago. Before the shipyard he’d worked at a Poland Spring bottling plant and done some carpentry, but never worked with metal.

There was a chance he’d leave the state, maybe go back to Orlando, Florida, where he spent his early childhood, to find work, Morse said. Most of his high school classmates from Cornish, where he grew up, are scattered across the country now.

But four months into his job as a shipbuilder, Morse is convinced he’s found a job for life.

“I’ll probably retire with BIW,” he said.

The pay, pension and benefits are great, but there’s something else Morse loves even more about his new job.

“You have pride in it, you know you’re making a difference here,” he said.

“When you see those ships come off the yard, it’s a pretty great feeling.”