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Megan Ray Nichols


Apprenticeships Offer Clear Career Paths and a Model for Higher Education

Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - 12:03

There is rising enthusiasm all over the country and the world when it comes to apprenticeships. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2013 to 2017, the number of those participating in apprenticeship programs grew from 375,000 to almost 534,000, an increase of about 42 percent. In 2017, the number of apprentices was 25-percent higher than the 20-year average of 425,000. [QD]

Some of the biggest reasons include the rising cost of attending college, the rapid aging-out of Baby Boomers from the workforce, and the difficulty that employers seem to be having in encouraging millennials to pursue careers in the skilled and semi-skilled trades.

When practical and successful apprenticeship programs do make waves it’s worth taking note of how they operate, why they met with success, and how they’ve managed to change the industries in which they operate. A prime example of what industry is doing to create its own workforce is the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprenticeship School.

What is the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprenticeship School?

Part of Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School was founded in 1919. Newport News Shipbuilding is a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major partner of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard when it comes to the innovation and construction of seafaring vessels, providing aftermarket services for those vessels and more. In fact, Huntington Ingalls is the largest military-focused shipbuilding company in the country and has multiple subsidiaries building more classes of ships for the U.S. Navy than any comparable corporation. The company employs 40,000 people at present, including 5,000 engineers and designers.

For nearly 100 years the apprenticeship school has been an influential and even transformative presence in manufacturing and shipbuilding. More than a single program focusing on a limited set of skills, the apprentice school teaches a variety of important industry skills, including metrology, welding, and ship fitting, and even offers a bachelor’s degree in engineering. These are dynamic, exciting and important disciplines, and Newport News Shipbuilding has found novel ways to encourage young people to get involved.

In some respects, the school resembles a traditional learning environment, as students split their time between the classroom and the school’s many on-site trade facilities. The following features are included on the expansive and growing campus:
• One of the largest dry dock and crane facilities in the entire western hemisphere
• One of the world’s largest combined fabrication and machine shop facilities for both wood and metals
• Complete repair and motor rebuild facilities, plus calibration and pump repair capabilities
• On-site laboratories 

In addition to these trade-focused areas, some of which are the best or largest of their kind anywhere in the academic world, the school continues to open new classrooms and new buildings to serve their students and meet ongoing demand. A new 85,000-sq ft facility opened its doors in 2012, adding to the school’s many stand-alone and interconnected learning and living facilities. In fact, the campus is large enough that Huntington-Ingalls maintains taxi and shuttle services for students and employees.

The location is a regional and local fixture and will enjoy its 100th year in operation in 2020. In a city with a population of 182,000, the apprentice school stands on roughly 100 acres of land. From the ground up, it was envisioned as a self-contained, hands-on apprenticeship college for individuals wanting to get involved in the many skills and processes required for building and maintaining ships. Students can enroll in more than 19 programs covering specific skills that are vital not only to shipbuilding but to many manufacturing industries.

Training programs at the apprenticeship school are, broadly, concerned with the following goals:
• To provide paid, on-site training
• To help apprentices graduate free from student debt
• To foster and develop general “employability skills” and leadership qualities
• To provide opportunities to pursue more advanced programs and associate’s degrees with affiliated colleges
• To maintain mutually beneficial relationships with major employers in the field, including Huntington Ingalls Industries 

The school receives up to tens of thousands of applicants annually, only admits 300 to 400 students during a busy year, and currently boasts 10,000 graduates in areas of study such as electricians, machinists, pipe fitters, ship fitters, coatings specialists, and many more. Graduating classes are generally small, with the 2018 class finishing with 148 students.

Why is this apprenticeship school significant?

Schools like this fill an unmet need in multiple industries. With ongoing shortages of enthusiastic and well-trained individuals in shipbuilding, ship fitting, and many of the other skilled and sometimes labor-intensive industries, apprenticeship schools allow students to train on site and immediately immerse themselves in the work. It’s a streamlined approach that results in a steady pipeline of job-ready talent for major employers.

For some, the apprenticeship school is the first step on a longer journey, while for others it’s all the training they need to land a satisfying job. The higher learning and degree opportunities available are thanks to partnerships with colleges like Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University, Rappahannock Community College, Strayer University, and several others.

Jessica Dunlap, a graduate of the Metrology Apprenticeship Program, says the school makes sense for those have a goal and are willing to put in the effort to achieve it.

“I would recommend the apprenticeship program to anyone who wants to work hard, apply themselves in a manual or technical field, and attend classes that can lead to a degree program,” says Dunlap, now a specialist in metrology, a technical discipline that very few colleges or universities teach. “The metrology program is for technically inclined people who operate measurement instruments in an industrial environment and analyze data within software programs. Metrology in shipbuilding is a combination of understanding precision measurements and their uncertainties while evaluating the application of quality in the process.”

In other words, a big part of the draw here is the chance to apply new technologies and data-gathering techniques to what is probably one of the oldest trades in existence. Shipbuilding has always been a vitally important part of the development of nations. In ages and generations past, ships were vital for building favorable trade routes and establishing coastal cities as tourist and trade destinations. These days, the construction and sale of advanced naval vessels and naval-related technology is an important metric in global hegemony and trade. The sale of submarine, frigate, and carrier components to allied nations is a major source of jobs and gross domestic product in the United States and beyond. Now, there’s a way for students to pursue an education in latter-day shipbuilding that leverages advanced tools and fosters interest in technology in general.

An apprenticeship school education

After an apprentice has selected the shipbuilding craft they’re most interested in, they embark on a program defined by six-month rotations through each of the skill areas they need to master before graduation. This generally breaks down to 1,000 hours of classroom coursework and 7,000 hours of on-site training with mentors.

Who are these mentors? About 40 percent of the production managers who oversee training are graduates from the apprenticeship school themselves. This only underscores the success the school has had in fostering lasting leadership qualities.

The bottom line of this breakdown between the classroom and hands-on time in the shipyards means students get a dynamic experience where no two consecutive days are necessarily the same. “Classes at the school are like any other school environment with a teacher and a room full of students,” says Dunlap. “On days that one does not attend school classes, trade-specific classes or training may be taken to teach the theory and practical applications of one’s job. These usually take place in apprentice galleries or shop areas where the work is being done.”

Early in the program students spend most of their time in class and little time on site. As they gain more knowledge, the shift is toward less class time and more time on-site applying their classroom knowledge to real hands-on work. In that sense, the classroom is no longer a room with desks, but instead is the entire 4.5-mile long Newport News Shipbuilding facility.

How does this differ from college?

There are several reasons why the cost-benefit analysis of the traditional college has become a political and civic flashpoint in America and elsewhere. Even with a degree in hand, a graduate from a typical vocational school or university is far from guaranteed a paying job and even less certain of finding something with a long-term career track.

Moreover, the debt load of the average college graduate has risen alarmingly in recent years, to a new high of $37,172. Collectively, college graduates in the United States hold more than $1.5 trillion in unresolved student debt.

The experience and future outlook of students who graduate from the apprenticeship school couldn’t be more starkly different. Instead of graduating with debt and having their wages effectively garnished for years, apprentices are paid instead a sum of $35,000 for their first year with the prospect of even higher earnings in their second, third and fourth years. They are, after all, providing profitable work for a major employer even as they receive their education—and they begin enjoying the fruits of those labors immediately.

As far as career prospects go, graduating apprentices are guaranteed job offers from Huntington Ingalls Industries. These positions carry an average salary of $54,000 per year. Although the apprenticeship program does not require graduates to work for the company, most graduates accept these job offers.

Dale Jones, metrology manager at Newport News Shipbuilding and a graduate himself, knows that the unique needs of shipbuilding, which combine mechanical engineering with next-generation 3D technologies, offers an extremely interesting and rewarding career path for students who might be feeling disenchanted about the idea of attending a more traditional college:

“In 1995 I gained exposure and was introduced to 3D metrology. [As] a shipfitter mechanic, your role... is ship-hull construction and the installation of structural foundations in the ship, which support large machinery components. 3D metrology is utilized to establish reference installation locations for the components being installed shipboard. It was this initial introduction that gained my interest to pursue a career in the field. In 1996, I joined the internal metrology team here at Newport News Shipbuilding as an entry-level measurement technician.”

In other words, the apprenticeship school has successfully helped multiple generations of graduates, and their eventual employers, navigate the sometimes treacherous transition of bringing new technologies to well-established industries. Shipbuilding is no different. In fact, one has to think that if the country scaled up the approach taken by Huntington Ingalls Industries, we’d be having far better luck helping rust-belt and coal-belt employees get retrained and redeployed in renewable energies and other fields. Call it a “Green New Deal,” if you like.

“The apprentice program is a combination of knowledge in theory as well as learned best practices and proper execution with instrumentation and software on the job,” says Dunlap. “The program ensures that specific skill sets are met through work demonstration. A metrology apprenticeship applies critical thinking in real time by overcoming challenges in job planning, surveying, and processing on a regular basis.”

By offering this mix of “hard” and “soft” skills, not to mention a wide variety of paths to take through this dynamic industry, the School has positioned itself as a model to be emulated and perhaps even a sign of things to come. As technology becomes a bigger part of our lives and our industries, and as workforce demographics continue to change, we’ll only need more approaches like this to navigate major industrial changes and encourage the next generations to take up the mantle.



About The Author

Megan Ray Nichols’s picture

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance technical writer. She contributes regularly to sites like Thomas Insights and Manufacturing.net. You can keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter or subscribing to her blog, Schooled By Science.