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Craft carrier: If they come to school, they can build it

The nearly century-old Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding, the nation's only builder of aircraft carriers and one of only two that build submarines, is getting new digs.

After spending the past seven decades behind the gates of the shipyard, essentially off-limits to the general public, the tuition-free school is moving to an open campus on three city blocks in the heart of downtown Newport News.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who helped break ground on the development in May 2012, is scheduled to oversee a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new site on Friday, right on schedule.

The $32.7 million school is the centerpiece of a new development that also includes apartments and office and retail space. The shipyard, the state, the city of Newport News, and Armada Hoffler, the Virginia Beach-based developer, teamed up for the project, which is being touted as a catalyst for revitalizing the city's downtown.

The 90,000-square-foot school, which will triple its instructional space, includes eight computer labs, two videoconferencing rooms, eight classrooms and a gym that can seat 600 people.

Instruction is scheduled to start there in mid-January.

Visible from at least a couple of the new rooms is a riverfront view of the nation's first and latest nuclear-powered aircraft carriers - the Enterprise and the Gerald R. Ford - sitting side by side in the shipyard.

"From our company's perspective, the downtown revitalization was probably one of our primary interests," said Everett Jordan, a graduate of the Apprentice School and its director of education.

With a campus like that of other small colleges - but in the center of the city - the school will be a magnet for young workers that will "springboard additional economic activity downtown," he said.

The other major components of the project are nearly 200 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of office and retail space and a parking garage for more than 380 cars. The development covers three blocks between 31st and 34th streets and West and Washington avenues.

The housing complex, which includes a resort-style swimming pool and workout room, is targeted toward Apprentice School students, shipyard and military personnel, and city employees.

Armada Hoffler, which paid for the entire $70 million campus complex upfront, will be repaid for the school and for the parking garage, over a number of years, with money from the state and the city.

The company will retain ownership of the residential and retail components, while the school will be owned by the shipyard and the parking garage by the city.

Louis Haddad, CEO of Armada Hoffler, said the idea for the project began to take shape about four years ago after the General Assembly approved a $25 million training grant to the shipyard.

Over time, an idea to build just a new school was broadened "to basically reinvigorate the downtown area," Haddad said.

"That was the goal - this project will be a catalyst," he added. "We think we've largely succeeded."

The shipyard's Apprentice School, which began in 1919, provides the company with a way to groom its own highly skilled base of tradesmen, such as welders and pipe-fitters, as well as future leaders.

Its students get an all-expense-paid education and a yearly salary on top of that.

"If your son or daughter came here to the Apprentice School today, they would start making - with no skills whatsoever - $34,000," Jordan said. "As they finish their four-year apprenticeship, they're making in the neighborhood of $56,000. They're doing things like buying their first home."

Admission is highly competitive.

Of more than 10,000 applicants over the past two years, about 500 have been accepted.

Those who make it through the program tend to stick around - 80 percent of the school's graduates are still with the company a decade after graduating - and many move up the ranks.

Nearly half of the company's waterfront management team - 44 percent - are alums.

Among other services offered to students: workshops on "proper business eating etiquette," as in how to use forks, spoons and knives, as well as what to wear and how to buy a home.

While the shipyard sees the program as a homegrown means of ensuring a high-quality workforce culture, the city views the foot traffic the apprentices will generate on the new campus as a way to lure more business to the city's core.

"Besides the buildings and the new construction, it's the activity that you will have with the apprentices coming and going," said Florence Kingston, Newport News' director of development.

"You're going to have more vibrancy."

Robert McCabe, 757-446-2327, robert.mccabe@pilotonline.com

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©2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

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