YORK, Maine — Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery has enough submarine maintenance and overhaul work to keep three dry docks busy through 2021, with more on deck after that. In the past two years alone, 1,400 people have been hired, with another 700 planned to be hired next year, bringing the total workforce to 6,200, accounting for attrition.
Things are clearly booming at the yard, said Capt. David Hunt, commander of PNSY, speaking at the York Rotary Club Friday. And the facility is no longer your father’s shipyard. Ten years ago, 40 percent of the workforce was ready to retire and another 40 percent were new hires. Today, only 11 percent are of retirement age.
“We’ve gone from a double-hump camel to a sliding board,” he said.
But in his presentation and in a later interview, Hunt acknowledged in order for the shipyard to meet future demands, it is crucial that Dry Dock 1 — one of three dry docks at the yard — be upgraded so it can accept the newer Virginia class submarines. Currently, it can only accept the older Los Angeles class subs, which will be phased out by 2029. The other two have already been upgraded for the Virginia class.
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Initial work has begun to upgrade Dry Dock 1. Design work on the dry dock super flood basin is well underway. The $7.2 million contract for that work will set the stage for work on the flood basin itself, expected to cost $109 million, said Gary Hildreth, deputy public affairs officer. Work to overhaul the pier next to Dry Dock 1 has just started as well, he said. At this point, the final costs to completely retrofit Dry Dock 1 are unknown, he said.
“Amazingly enough, we’re doing overhauls while this (initial) work is going on,” Hunt said. The next three boats slated for Dry Dock 1 will be LA class. If funding is secured for all the work, he anticipates Dry Dock 1 should be accepting Virginia class subs by 2025.
The need to modernize dry docks at all four public shipyards was underscored in a Government Accountability Office report last fall. It estimated the Navy needs to spend $4 billion in the next 20 years on dry docks alone, and $20 billion overall to modernize the yards’ facilities, which it rated as “poor.” Given the current level of funding at the shipyards, the report estimates it will take 19 years to eliminate the backlog in needed restoration and modernization work.
“That’s why you see so much construction going on in the shipyard,” Hunt said. “We should all be where we need to be at the 20-year mark. But it’s not something that is guaranteed” as funding still has to be appropriated.
Hunt is juggling all these balls at the same time he is overseeing a booming shipyard that is working straight out to meet the deadlines and budgets as it undertakes work with that younger workforce firmly in the majority now.
“We saw this challenge coming years ago,” said Hunt, who was previously assigned to PNSY between 2010 to 2013 as an engineering and planning officer and then as an operations officer. He credits the workforce itself with coming up with a key solution, the creation of “learning centers,” which allow both apprentice and new skilled employees to work on mock-ups. This makes them more productive when they actually work on the subs.
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“We can get them down to the deckplate very fast now,” he said. “It also allows us to test out new ideas, which can make efficiency gains at the deckplate, as well.”
He said so far, the yard has been able to attract enough candidates for its apprenticeship program, and skilled workers are coming on board as well, if not at the same pace. For instance, yard officials had hoped to garner 200 applicants at a recent job fair, and received 188 applications. Meanwhile, 300 people have passed the test to apply for 175 slots in the apprenticeship program.
“The Seacoast, with a 2 percent unemployment rate, we’ve found to be a little challenging,” he said. “It’s getting harder. I read recently about one construction company that is willing to pay off some college loans in order to attract workers. But it’s not impossible.”
Most of the new hires are local to the Seacoast, he said. “If you get too much out of a 100-mile radius, people start getting homesick.” Some hires come from within the Navy’s own ranks — folks who were stationed here, left the Navy, and stayed in the area. Once the shipyard workforce reaches 6,200, “that’s where we’re going to sit for the next five years. But we’re bringing a lot of new young talent into the shipyard. And that’s very exciting.”
In addition to the civilian workers, another 1,000 people work at tenant facilities like the New England Army Recruiting Battalion and the Navy’s survival training school. And another 1,000 at any given time are sailors assigned to the submarines, who live both on and off base.
“The traffic can be intense over those two bridges that are right in the middle of Kittery,” he said, acknowledging it is going to take a multi-pronged approach to alleviate traffic pressure on the town. “We will explore anything possible as we continue to grow. It’s important. We understand Kittery is our neighbor.”
The town and shipyard should hear by the end of September whether they have secured a Department of Defense grant that would bring together traffic managers, civil engineers and others to work on a solution to the increased traffic. The report that would be generated would lay out the groundwork for possible solutions.
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He said other efforts to alleviate traffic are ongoing. Construction companies are asked to find parking for workers out of town and bus them in, and at least one company is doing that. Cars with more than three passengers get prime parking spots, and workers get reimbursed for a portion of the cost of the COAST bus service that comes to the shipyard every day.
“We can’t tell Kittery to build a 200-spot parking garage,” he said. “And if we put another parking garage on base, it’s just going to create more people trying to get off-base at the end of the day.”
Hunt said in future years, the yard may beef up a second and even a third shift to alleviate traffic at the two gates during the daytime hours. He said workers “have to be more independent to work on these shifts, because there’s less oversight on a back shift,” he said. “As the junior workforce gets more experience, in the three- to four-year range, we’ll have the ability to put people on second and third shift. But that doesn’t mean we do that just to solve a traffic problem.”
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