Electric Boat Faces Challenge Of Replenishing Skilled, But Senior, Work Force

By Paul Edward Parker
January 15, 2015
Providence Journal
General Dynamics Electric Boat President Jeffrey S. Geiger sounded a note of cautious optimism Thursday in meetings with elected officials from Rhode Island and Connecticut, the two principal states in which the nuclear submarine builder has facilities.
Geiger warned that the potential of renewed budget uncertainty in Washington could deliver a curveball to what is an otherwise rosy outlook for the company.
But Geiger said two factors work in the sub maker’s favor: the Navy has placed high priority on submarine construction, and the long-term nature of sub building and paying for the boats insulates the company somewhat from the day-to-day machinations of Washington.
“We’re in a very good position today, and we have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us,” Geiger told a morning audience in Groton, Conn., that included U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D.-Conn. He made similar remarks in the afternoon in Warwick, where the audience included Governor Raimondo and U.S. Representatives James Langevin and David N. Cicilline, both Democrats.
But that “very good position” doesn’t leave Geiger without worries.
His work force is aging, and he expects to hire about 1,100 people this year, about half of them to replace workers who leave. He also anticipates hiring several thousand in the coming decade to build replacements for the Ohio class of ballistic missile submarines.
“We’ve got a very experienced and skilled work force, but it’s a very senior work force,” Geiger said. “We’re going to see a number of retirements over the next five years.”
And that’s where the problem lies.
“The thing that kind of outweighs everything else is: can we get the human resources that have the skill and background” to build submarines, he said.
Geiger said the company needs and will continue to need workers with strong math and science skills, as well as a background in trades, such as welders, carpenters and machinists.
“This is a significant challenge for us” and for the two states, Geiger said. “We’ve got a real task to prepare the work force for the future.”
“That’s a problem we can solve,” Raimondo said at the Rhode Island meeting. She pledged to a tighter collaboration between the company and educational institutions, including universities, community colleges and high schools. “You certainly have my commitment to work with you for the future success of this company.”
Although the company struggles now to find qualified job candidates, Geiger’s bigger concern is where the thousands of workers who will build the Ohio replacements will come from.
Those workers are now in high school, middle school and younger, he said. “There’s kids that haven’t even entered school yet that will have the opportunity to work on that program.”
The 1,100 hirings this year will include 500 to 600 at Electric Boat’s facility in Quonset Point, where workers construct submarine sections known as supermodules that are later assembled in Groton, Geiger said. About 200 of those hirings will be to fill positions vacated by workers who leave the company. The majority of the hirings in Groton will be for such positions.
“These are good jobs,” Geiger said. “These are jobs that build rewarding careers.”
Last year, the company hired 1,600 people, including 900 at Quonset Point, he said.
After this year, Geiger expects that the company will hire 200 to 300 people annually at Quonset Point for the next several years, mainly to fill vacancies created by people leaving the company.
Then, beginning in 2019, the company will need about 1,000 new workers a year as it ramps up production of the replacement for the Ohio class, if the company is awarded the work.
“We expect to play a dominant role in that,” Geiger said. Many industry observers agree. The company currently is doing the design work for the new submarines.
According to figures supplied by the company, it has 12,827 employees at all locations, including 5,838 in Groton, 3,438 in Quonset Point, 3,180 in New London, 45 in Newport and several hundred at other facilities around the country. The company said a total of 4,486 Rhode Island residents work for the sub builder, including 2,993 at Quonset Point, 965 at Groton, 483 at New London and 45 at Newport.