Visit to Newport News Shipbuilding Shows Value of Apprenticeships

By Richard M. Long

The Apprenticeship School is an education program, based on the ancient craft of shipbuilding, now on the cutting edge of technology

On a recent August day, members of the Learning First Alliance visited the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) to see firsthand how this institution trains its students for high-tech, high-skilled jobs in its vast manufacturing facility. It was enlightening. The apprenticeship program has been in place since 1919 and has managed the ever-changing demands of a shipyard that builds nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers for the U.S. military. 

The Apprentice School is key to helping students reach proficiency—for example, students today need to learn how to use a welding arc while interpreting and recording the data on a tablet.  While the school has less than 900 students at any one time, and all are part of a shipyard that employs more than 30,000 workers, the education and training is key to the shipyard’s and each individual’s future. 

Newport News’ leaders want to expand their engagement with the education community. Currently, they have a strong relationship with local school districts and several of the area community colleges. They want to expand this engagement by working with more teachers and making more presentations to show students, teachers and parents the opportunities that exist and how to prepare for the apprenticeship school.  With this outreach, they can better explain the types of jobs and skills needed. They even examine candidates’ early grades, looking for students who are curious and ask questions such as, ‘did you like to play with Legos when you were younger?’ What seems like play is actually a quiz to determine their interest and knowledge of how things fit together. This is only one dimension of their program.

Our guides emphasized that it is not only the academic learning that is important but also the acquisition of “soft-skills” that are critical to the working of the shipyard. Specifically, they talked about how the shipyard is composed of teams of workers who need to work together, communicate effectively (in person and virtually), and identify and solve problems. These are not minor skills but are critical for their success.

As it turns out, the apprenticeship program has produced an exceptional number of leaders for Newport News.  Their graduates represent more than 40 percent of the company’s leadership.  And NNS does not ask students to commit to a specific timeframe for providing training and an education: Students are free to take their knowledge to any other company. NNS leadership believes that it should always offer competitive wages and benefits to those they have trained and nurtured.

At the end of this hot summer day we got to see the shipyard in action: We saw workers in their protective gear – heavy cloths, heavy boots, and hard hats, working hard in non-air conditioned assembly areas. The apprentices are taught in these real-life conditions as well. They learn to always be prepared: If a student came to class, even on their second day, without their gear, they were given one safety warning. None of their work can be approached in a causal manner, their lives depend on their preparedness.

A current project at NNS is the dismantling of the 1961-era USS Enterprise, while crafting the new one. Using steel milled in the shops on site (and steel from the old ship in the keel of the new one), students and workers used their massive tools with computer controls at some times and manual manipulations at others while they read and record their work on tablets.  These tablets are used to coordinate how the pipes are made and assembled with wiring and other elements.  This communication is critically important as there are three shifts doing the work, each depending on the other to follow the written directions, communicate problems, and maintain a clear record.  The cycle repeats: The current version of the Enterprise will brought back to the shipyard in 2050 to be overhauled by the next generation of apprentices and graduates, who will be trained on the craftsmanship as well as the information of those being trained now.

The Apprenticeship School at the Newport News Shipbuilding is an example of an education program, based on the ancient craft of shipbuilding, is now at the cutting edge of the information and manufacturing age.

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group of visitors standing in front of the Apprentice School