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June 16, 2014
Workforce readiness

Three industries take ownership of their worker training needs

PHOTo / Tim greenway
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Steve Kent, Bath Iron Works' senior production training coordinator, says workforce training is the key to the shipyard's future success.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Steve Von Vogt, CEO of Maine Marine Composites, along the Portland waterfront near a U.S. Coast Guard ship.

Bath Iron Works is looking to hire up to 500 pipefitters, electricians, outside machinists, welders and tinsmiths to keep pace with five Navy destroyers now under construction, and work on another will start by year's end. But before even the most experienced of those new hires starts working on a DDG-51 or DDG-1000 destroyer, they must take a rigorous six-week training program.

Most will be trained within the shipyard's new 6,000-square-foot Trades Learning Center that opened this spring, part of parent company General Dynamics Corp.'s $60 million investment that includes a 51,315-square-foot outfitting center and upgrades to existing facilities.

"We're reducing the learning curve, if you will," says Michelle Wyman, BIW's manager of organizational development, who helped with the curriculum planning effort for the new training facility and brings to that assignment 29 years of training and development experience with Maine Yankee and Martin's Point. "There are some key messages delivered on orientation day that are reinforced throughout the training: Safety, first-time quality, integrity, continuous process improvement."

It's all part of a renewed focus on workforce training that's only partially driven by the hiring surge that will put the Bath shipyard's employment level over 6,000 for the first time in a decade. With 40% of its workforce being between the ages of 55 and 65 and becoming eligible for early retirement, Wyman says BIW's upper management wants to make sure it has enough skilled replacements to live up to the shipyard's longstanding motto, "Bath built is best built."

"I'm interested in passing on that legacy to the next generation," says Steve Kent, BIW's senior production training coordinator, who started as a welder in 1979. "Shipbuilding is our heritage. We live it and breathe it here in Bath. It's an incredible legacy and there's a lot of pride among the workers that they're keeping it alive."

BIW isn't the only Maine employer taking charge of its workforce training needs. Another legacy industry, forestry and logging, is taking proactive steps in response to its aging workforce and the need to encourage more young people to work in the North Woods. Even the emerging offshore wind and ocean energy industry has launched an "Ocean Readiness" initiative to make sure Maine companies will be part of the supply chain that will be needed to achieve the state's projected 2020 energy needs.

Kent places BIW's training initiative within the broader context of the workforce challenges many American manufacturing companies are facing. "We have been so dependent on other nations to do our manufacturing," he says. "Now, with the aging workforce, it's going to require a major initiative by all U.S. companies that are involved in manufacturing to make sure we have the workers we'll need."

BIW's initiative

Up to 60 tradespeople can be trained inside the shipyard's new training facility at the same time. The layout includes small booths for individual training exercises and larger open areas where teams of workers can collaborate on an assignment with guidance from instructors. Even wearing the mandatory safety earplugs, there's a throbbing buzz and hum that provides a hint of what's to come once the trainees are sent out into the 68,000-square-foot Ultra Hall or other manufacturing facilities within the shipyard.

Wyman says her role was not so much "the ins and outs of the actual skills" being taught there as it was making sure there was a standard curriculum for each trade. She pulled together a team of mechanics who identified essential functions that should be taught and also knew how to drive home the high standards required in building ships for the U.S. Navy. Even veteran mechanics have something to learn.

Rick Blair, senior supervisor of welding, is in his 35th year at the shipyard. Like Kent, he's pleased the shipyard is beefing up its training program and has put an array of trades together under one roof at the new 6,000-square-foot training facility.

"We're promoting teamwork," says Blair, who worked with Wyman and Kent to set up the training program.

Under the watchful eye of pipefitting instructor Todd McPhee, Leo Binette Jr. and fellow trainee Harold Eames III turn a small section of pipe to create a bevel on one end. Elsewhere, a team of electricians, whose blue hardhats distinguish them from the green hardhats worn by pipefitters, are listening intently to an instructor.

"I'm used to commercial construction, where a lot of the construction is square," says Binette, a Lewiston resident who comes to BIW with 12 years of experience as a pipefitter and eight years as a plumber. "These ships are nowhere near square."

Eames, a Bath resident whose father, both grandfathers, an uncle and several cousins have either retired or are still working at the shipyard, likewise brings 14 years of pipefitting and pipe welding to his new job at the shipyard.

"I've worked in three nuclear power plants, I've worked on powerhouses, two different pharmaceutical companies, several different oil refineries," Eames says. "Pipe is pipe no matter where you go. But there are certain site-specific requirements for marine piping. I'm bridging the gap between working on nukes and working on a ship for the Navy."

"The quality of the training here is parallel to the training I got working at nuclear power plants," he adds. "They're stressing safety as the top priority. No. 2, they're stressing attention to detail and the quality of work."

Kent says BIW's training program covers things that might be forgotten when the shipyard's veteran workers decide it's time to retire.

"Our processes are going through a lot of change," he says. "We're doing a lot of targeted training. It helps us tighten our processes and get more competent. It's allowed us to fine-tune our workforce. We're setting a new model here, where we are demonstrating why a company that wants to be world class has to do what we're doing. We are a world-class shipyard and we are fighting to maintain that. In order to do that we need to take aggressive steps."

'Ocean Readiness'

Maine's fields of ocean energy and offshore wind are relatively new, but the onshore wind industry has gained a solid foothold, with $1 billion spent since 2004, benefiting more than 750 Maine businesses and supporting an average of 240 jobs annually, according to the Wind for ME website.

Yet job training will be an important component of the industry's growth.

Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative recently hosted an "Ocean Readiness" webinar laying out the types of jobs that will be found in offshore wind construction and the types of workforce training that will be required, Paul Williamson, director of MOWII, says. With the planned $2.6 billion Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, entering the construction phase, he says Maine companies have an opportunity to become part of that project's supply chain. And that will position them to capitalize on the opportunities that might arise in Maine if and when offshore wind farms are constructed in the Gulf of Maine.

"Job growth in this market is going to happen, slowly," Williamson says. "The cost of onshore wind had dropped 40% in the last four years. It's now the second-most competitive source of energy in the U.S. You will see a similar major reduction in the cost of offshore wind over the next 20 years."

A 2010 report, "Wind Energy Sector: Employment Opportunities and Requirements," prepared for the Maine Composites Alliance and Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative by consultant Annette Bossler, provides two job-creation scenarios to reach the state's target goals of 2,700 megawatts for onshore wind and 300MW for offshore wind by 2020:

• 5,564 construction jobs and 16,988 total supply chain jobs, assuming Maine would have the full supply chain locally, including production of turbines.

• 2,663 construction jobs and 1,688 total supply chain jobs, assuming only a limited local supply chain and no local turbine manufacturing.

Maine Marine Composites LLC, which was founded in 2006 and is based in Portland, provides advanced engineering and analysis services for offshore wind, hydrokinetic and oil-and-gas projects in the marine environment. CEO Steve Von Vogt acknowledges that the potential of offshore wind energy in Maine remains unknown. But he shares Williamson's view that related marine industries already established in Maine will be well-positioned to capitalize on that market once it begins to take off.

"Much of it involves the same set of skills and, in many cases, the same supply chain of companies," he says. "What's interesting about Maine is that we have a workforce that comes out of those heritage industries — pulp and paper, boatbuilding and fishing — and they have real skills and real expertise that would be hard to replicate in other places."

Von Vogt says the challenge for Maine's heritage industries will be to identify and capitalize on opportunities to use their expertise in those emerging offshore wind and ocean energy industries.

"We have to identify and work on solutions that are global solutions," he says. "The problems we face are global problems."

Forest industry worries

With a total economic impact of $8 billion and direct and indirect employment of 38,700 workers, the forest industry represents 5% of total employment and 6.25% of the gross state product in Maine. Yet it is a legacy industry facing tough challenges due to an aging workforce and advancements in harvesting technology and techniques that require more highly developed skills and forestry knowledge than was necessary two decades ago.

"It's a very, very important part of the economy up here," says Alain Ouellette, economic planning and development division director for the Northern Maine Development Commission, which serves Aroostook and Washington counties. But the forest products industry can play an even greater role, he says, as a renewable energy resource that can help wean Maine from a reliance on oil that results in 70 cents of every dollar spent on that heating fuel leaving the state.

A 2011 logger training survey conducted by the University of Maine's School of Forest Resources identified a need for greater entry-level training, with 62% of contractors employing the more technologically advanced cut-to-length harvesting method saying they lacked access to qualified loggers and operators. A follow-up survey the following year found that 73% of the contractors surveyed see a need for an equipment operator-training program in Maine.

But the survey also raised red flags about retirement, succession and sustainability. The findings prompted NMDC, in collaboration with the University of Maine at Fort Kent and Aroostook Partnership for Progress, to develop intensive seminars to teach logging and forest product owners and employees about best practices. This year's day-long business training seminar took place in mid-May and was funded by logging- and forest-product companies, banks and credit unions, insurance companies and land owners, he says.

"We put together a workshop designed to make them better businesspeople," Ouellette says, noting that Steven Bick, a trained forest economist, demonstrated software that can plan and analyze timber-harvesting practices. It helps companies calculate operating costs and compare the costs of various logging systems.

"What it attempts to do is provide detailed production analyses to help the business owner answer the overriding question, 'Are we as a company striving, thriving or just surviving?'" Ouellette says. "Our mission now is to create a sustainable program that will continue to meet the needs of the logging industry in our region. … The demographics of the logging industry is getting grayer, so the whole issue of 'succession' is quite a challenge going into the future."

Sherry Huber, executive director of the Maine Tree Foundation, a nonprofit timber research and environmental education organization based in Augusta, shares that concern. She says her organization, along with groups such as the Maine Logger Education Alliance, Maine Sustainable Forestry Initiative, community colleges and the University of Maine, have been working hard for many years to make sure the state's forest products industry has a skilled workforce. "We've been trying to figure out how to encourage young people to consider a career in logging and forestry," Huber says.

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