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Newport News Shipbuilding president on 350-ship Navy: 'little bit of a wait-and-see'

By ROBERT MCCABE | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 15, 2017

President Donald Trump’s call to expand the Navy fleet to roughly 350 vessels sounds well and good to Matt Mulherin, the president of Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of the nation’s largest military shipbuilder.

“It’s a little bit of a wait-and-see right now, but we certainly like what we hear,” he told about 120 maritime stakeholders at a Virginia Maritime Association breakfast meeting Wednesday in Norfolk.

He didn’t pull any punches, however, about the challenges that lie ahead.

“Sequestration is still the law of the land,” Mulherin told the packed room, referring to the federal spending caps enacted in 2011.

And the nation is still under a “continuing resolution,” a stopgap funding measure put in place of an approved budget.

“That’s all great,” he said of the new administration’s plans to build up the fleet.

“But, you know, what we’ve got to go see is that turn into appropriations,” and then contracts and money for suppliers to buy steel and pipe and the other components that create ships.

Nearly six years after Northrop Grumman Corp. spun off its shipbuilding unit to create Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., the parent of Newport News Shipbuilding, the yard appears poised to reap a bonanza, assuming all of the pieces fall into place.

With more than 20,000 employees, the Newport News yard is the largest industrial employer in Virginia. It’s the nation’s only designer, builder and refueler of Navy aircraft carriers and one of two providers of submarines.

Mulherin compared the shipyard’s situation to a runner told to “take your mark” – a time for thinking about the future, what’s to be done, what’s the first step, how to plan for the necessary capital investment and hiring, so that when opportunities materialize, they can be seized.

Yet there’s plenty of investment and hiring under way to deal with the shipyard’s existing business.

Roughly $600 million is being spent on the construction of facilities at the northern end of the yard to house more of the work on aircraft carriers and submarines.

The new construction is going up on a site once envisioned for a very different purpose. Eight years ago, when it was still part of Northrop Grumman, the yard planned to partner with France-based Areva there, building components for U.S. nuclear power plants.

As for hiring, Mulherin said it plans to add 3,000 workers this year, with welders, shipfitters and construction managers at the top of the list.

Only a year ago, the yard was dealing with hundreds of layoffs.

In a brief question-and-answer period, Mulherin said finding available workers in the region is not a problem.

“We don’t have an issue with it,” he said, adding that working with community colleges and what he termed a “trades training pipeline” was paying off.

In an interview after his talk, Mulherin said the shipyard is willing to take people with no experience and train them from scratch, as it were – even newspaper reporters, he joked.

In a typical year, the yard will spend more than $50 million on training its workforce, he said.

Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls designs, builds and maintains ships for the Navy and Coast Guard at its two divisions, 131-year-old Newport News Shipbuilding and Mississippi-based Ingalls Shipbuilding, which makes surface combatants such as destroyers and amphibious warships.

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©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) pier side at Newport News Shipbuilding, April 9, 2014.
NEWPORT NEWS SHIPBUILDING

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