As tensions with North Korea mount and the Chinese expand the scope of their military operations in Southeast Asia, the pace may soon speed up at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.
Hundreds more workers are expected to be hired and multi-billion-dollar construction projects are likely to be initiated as the shipyard updates its facilities to accommodate a new generation of Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines that will soon be arriving.
Congress is pressing for many of the changes at the shipyard, which maintains much of the nation’s Pacific-based fleet.
In a congressional report that accompanied the fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill, the House Armed Services Committee demanded that the nation’s four shipyards step up the pace of their work. The committee ordered the four antiquated Navy shipyards, including Pearl Harbor, to prepare an employment development plan, renovate their facilities and improve their workflow.
“Disturbing delays in ship overhaul work have already occurred,” according to the report.
Congressional staffers said in the report that that four nuclear attack submarines “languished in the shipyards for years beyond their scheduled completion date” because of problems with getting repair work completed.
The report did not say where the delays had occurred. There are four Navy shipyards, including facilities in Maine, Washington state, Virginia and Hawaii.
Fast-attack submarines, such as the Los Angeles and Virginia classes, are the biggest category of vessels based at Pearl Harbor. They are also among the most complex ships in the Navy, using advanced propulsion systems that require increasingly sophisticated maintenance systems.
More money is on the way.
Speaking at a conference in June at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, said that about 2,000 workers would be hired at the four federal shipyards, including Pearl Harbor. Aging dry dock facilities would also be replaced, at a cost he estimated at $3 billion to $4 billion each.
The budget for fiscal year 2018 provides $9.7 billion for fleet maintenance, he said.
“We’ve got the resources we asked for, and now we have to deliver,” said Moore, who controls about one-quarter of the Navy’s budget. “Clearly it’s going to help us grow the size of the shipyards.”
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, recently said one option for Pearl Harbor is a new kind of floating dry dock that can be moved from place to place. It is about one-third the cost of a standard dry dock, she said.
The Pearl Harbor shipyard, located about 8 miles west of downtown Honolulu, occupies 148 acres and contains about 200 structures. It is the largest industrial employer in the state, with about 5,200 civilian employees and 540 U.S. Navy personnel.
Repairs and replacement of dry-dock facilities at Pearl Harbor are long overdue. All four are more than 70 years old; the newest was built in 1945. One of them is no longer usable for many of the newer ships.
New and experienced workers at Pearl Harbor are being prepared for what lies ahead.
At a graduation ceremony for apprentices held last week, Capt. Greg Burton, the shipyard’s commander, described the growing hazards faced by the U.S. fleet, about 60 percent of which is based in the Pacific region.
“Are you relevant?,” he asked rhetorically, quickly tallying the reasons why.
He noted that North Korea is launching an increasing number of missiles into the sea, that China is quickly building up its naval fleet and the Islamic State is making military advances in the Philippines.
Submarine warfare would be an important line of defense for American forces if hostilities turned into outright war, he said.
“We are the folks that keep these subs fit to fight,” Burton told the new graduates.
The 86 graduates had just completed a four-year program that combines academic study at Honolulu Community College with paid work experience at the shipyard. Starting pay for an apprentice is $20 an hour; workers who complete the four-year program start at about $31 an hour, plus health benefits, paid vacation and sick leave and a 401(k) retirement plan.
The graduates ranged in age from 24 to 54 years old. For many, the jobs represent a major career change— for some, a second or third career change. About a tenth of the graduates were women.
In emotional comments, two of the recent graduates said the apprenticeship program had been life-changing for them.
One, Toni Peralta had been a hula instructor and stay-at-home mother before signing up for the program and becoming a marine machinery mechanic.
The other speaker, Dorothy Chong, a single mother with three children, had few good career prospects when she started the program. She cried as she described the difficulties she faced during her training to become an electrician and said she frequently thought of quitting. But she found she had abilities she didn’t know about. Now she owns the home where she lives withe her family.
“That’s something I would never be able to do without Pearl,” she said.
Underscoring the strategic and political importance of the work performed at the shipyard, three of Hawaii’s four congressional delegates attended the ceremony. Hanabusa delivered the keynote address, and U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono offered brief congratulatory statements.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard did not attend. Her staff said she was involved in Hawaii Army National Guard training.
The apprenticeship program will play a key role in maintaining the long-term capability of the shipyard.
In all four of its shipyards, the Navy has been having a problem maintaining the right level of skills and experience.
A study completed this year by the RAND Corp. noted that over an eight-year period, the share of the shipyard workforce with less than 10 years of experience increased from 35 percent to nearly 50 percent, while the crucial block of experienced workers with 20 to 29 years’ experience declined from 31 percent to 12 percent.
RAND estimated that a journeyman graduate of an apprentice program is four times more productive than a first year worker. More workers need to be hired, and trained, as quickly as possible to make up the skills gap, the report suggested.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.