Training the Civilian Workforce to Meet the
Maintenance Requirements of the U.S. Navy Fleets
To meet the maintenance requirements and expectations of the U.S. Navy fleets, private industry needs to take advantage of every available training opportunity. The Navy continues to look to the civilian sector for increased maintenance support and the need for trained and experienced workers must increase to keep pace. This civilian workforce with varying military training and experience provides essential maintenance support above the operator level. Not long ago the Military Services provided a sound training base and invaluable experience for a larger portion of the civilian workforce. Training covered a variety of skills – mechanics, welders, ship fitters, pipe fitters, machinists, electricians, quality inspectors and supply specialists. The skill levels ranged from basic entry-level unskilled labor to skilled craftsmen with extensive experience and training. Training and education in technical skills has always been a strong point in our military services and has served the civilian community well.
Over time priorities change and with the extensive downsizing of the military forces in the past fifteen years the focus shifted in the training of the military maintenance personnel. With a smaller force, the Services made cuts in the areas of support personnel in an effort to conserve the combat forces. Now the Services look increasingly at the civilian sector to provide maintenance support. The result is that the civilian sector no longer has the numbers of workers with a base level of military experience and training upon which to draw and support the increasing demands of the Service’s maintenance needs.
This problem of a smaller pool of resources from which to draw is compounded by the fact that many of those with military experience that get out of the service today have not had the level of maintenance training and experience that we saw in the past. Much of our training today, both in the military and in the civilian community focuses on personnel management and leadership skills at the expense of the technical skills required to understand, operate, troubleshoot and repair complex systems and equipment.
Currently, the civilian workforce that supports the Navy maintenance programs consists of many military retirees with extensive knowledge of systems operations and maintenance. According to an article in The Virginian-Pilot the average age of the shipyard worker in the Hampton Roads area is 48 years old and going up. Much of their education and training came not only from hands-on experience, but also from formal training, both on-site and correspondence courses. As these old-timers approach their age of retirement we need to attract younger workers to take their place.
As an example of a local small business in the marine repair industry, Auxiliary Systems, Inc (formerly Pure Water Technologies) in Norfolk employs approximately 70 personnel. These employees represent a variety of skills and levels of expertise. The senior leadership is comprised of skilled craftsmen and technicians, many with extensive service in the Navy. Overall about one third of our workforce has some military experience. As we continue to grow to meet increasing demands for maintenance support the percentage of veterans continues to drop. Marine repair work is tough and demanding. Natural attrition takes its toll and new hires experience a high turnover rate. Therefore, it is essential to provide effective and practical training opportunities as an incentive.
The Military Services now look to private businesses such as Auxiliary Systems to perform the maintenance that was once performed in-house. The Services expect the experience and expertise to be there when needed. Much of the senior leadership at Auxiliary Systems learned their trade skills while serving in the Navy and now puts those skills to good use supporting the Navy as civilians in the defense industry. We now need to prepare the midlevel team leaders and young mechanics to assume the responsibility for providing dependable and responsive service and support to the Navy.
Today, the marine repair industry is having a difficult time filling its ranks with workers who possess that invaluable military experience. Private industry and institutions of higher learning are looking at ways to fill this gap and provide training opportunities for the marine repair industry. Locally, the Virginia Ship Repair Association (formerly South Tidewater Association of Ship Repairers (STASR) and the Tidewater Maritime Training Institute (TMTI) worked with the Department of Labor and Tidewater Community College (TCC) to develop an apprenticeship program. This program leads to an associate degree in applied science as a Ship Repair and Industrial Supervisor.
Additionally, VSRA and TMTI offer a variety of skill courses for ship repair workers. These courses include 40-80 hours of instruction in areas such as ship fitting, pipefitting, welding, blue print reading and shipyard orientation. Also, the major shipyards in the Hampton Roads area offer their own apprenticeship programs, but the smaller shipyards and small businesses cannot afford to run such programs.
Many new hires coming in to replace the aging workforce lack both the military experience and the formal military specific training. While we still do hire some veterans with experience, many of them do not have the knowledge in mechanics, engineering and hydraulics that the previous veterans possessed. The private sector training opportunities as mentioned are making a difference, but as the Services continue to look more and more to the civilian sector to perform required maintenance on their equipment we must continue to take advantage of every training opportunity.
An area that holds great potential for training is the military correspondence courses that were developed by the Services over a number of years. Many of these courses focus on technical skills from the Military Services’ perspective and provide a solid foundation for young mechanics, machinists and welders. For example, the Navy’s General Engineering Training consists of 13 one-hour sessions ranging from Introduction of Piping Systems to Packing, Gaskets and Seals and various pumps. There are also courses under the United Services Military Apprenticeship Program – Pipe Fitter, Welder, Machinist, Outside Machinist, Boiler Mechanic, Maintenance Mechanic, Pump Repairer -- that have direct application to the marine repair industry. These courses address the basic theory and fundamental engineering principles in their areas, providing a foundation for our workforce of the future. The availability of theses courses and others to the civilian industry could be a win-win for both the military and private industry. Marine repair workers with no military experience would get training from the Navy’s perspective. Successful completion of an approved course would be recognized industry wide if certificates of completion were issued and would contribute to consistency in training among different organizations. And for those workers with military experience it would be a good reinforcement of past training.
Currently, the Navy e-learning website offers courses on line to active duty personnel and Navy retirees. If some of these technical courses could be offered to private industry employees, this could enhance the level of maintenance support provided with minimal cost. The challenge is to develop procedures that will allow controlled access to the courses and provide recognition for successful completion.
Ongoing efforts to train employees that include training opportunities offered through the Virginia Ship Repair Association (VSRA) and Tidewater Maritime Training Institute (TMTI) are making a difference. Additionally, the courses offered through the Department of Labor sponsored program in coordination with Tidewater Community College are generating interest and proving beneficial. We still need to supplement the skill level training offered by TMTI and the local community colleges. Taking advantage of the time-tested and proven correspondence course program affords yet another opportunity for training the marine repair industry workforce. In this time of tight budgets it makes good sense to take advantage of the resources available. The development cost of these correspondence courses has been paid and with on-line capability the cost to the Navy would be minimal. Working together to take advantage of and promoting every available training opportunity to maintain the readiness of the fleet and meet the expectations of the Navy leadership makes good sense.
In today’s world, the operational tempo under which the Services operate demands the best training and the most responsive maintenance to maintain the highest state of readiness. As the Revolution in Training continues to evolve within the Navy we need to take advantage of every asset available to improve the training of the total workforce of active duty, reserves, DoD civilians and contractor personnel. Extending the availability of the non-resident training to authorized contractors through Navy E-Learning will foster professional development of the total maintenance team. Education and training is never wasted and will contribute to the Regional Maintenance Center’s ability to make the Fleet Response Plan the best it can be.
Norman B. Hodges III,
COL, USA (ret)
Auxiliary Systems, Inc.
(757) 623-5674 x204