Help wanted: Marinette Marine has 800 more hires to go

Marinette Marine is ramping up hiring after securing contracts to build 10 Littoral Combat Ships for the U.S. Navy.

For Marinette Marine’s Charles Goddard, business is good – so good that the company is scrambling to ramp up its workforce by hundreds of employees over the next several months.

This sense of urgency is due to the fact that Marinette Marine has secured contracts to build 10 Littoral Combat Ships for the U.S. Navy, and the company is using every workforce development resource it can find to meet demand for a ship-building program whose economic impact will extend far beyond company walls.

Marinette Marine has recalled all the people it laid off last spring while it was awaiting word on the LCS contract, and it has been aggressively hiring ever since. The company is adding about 35 to 50 people a month, and it will have to accelerate that pace to as many as 100 per month over the next three to six months.

The company’s workforce now stands at about 1,200 employees, including 800 hourly union workers and about 400 salaried employees. To fulfill the LCS contract, it will have to reach about 2,000 employees, with roughly 1,400 hourly people in the shipyard.

Marinette Marine still needs a large assortment of welders, steel workers, pipe fitters, plumbers, and electricians, and a good number of the new additions are likely to be very young. “It’s an older workforce right now,” said Goddard, president, CEO, and general manager of Marinette Marine. “I tell them that a year from now, they will look left and look right and there will be a new hire there. I really need them to embrace that and help teach new people the trade.”

Doubling the workforce is one challenge, but it creates another in that the local workforce starts to deplete in terms of skills, and the training burden becomes greater and greater in a community that stands to gain an estimated $2.6 billion and 5,000 overall jobs from the LCS project.

Mary Johns, executive director of the Marinette Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce, said a number of education and business partnerships are in place that feature training at different levels of education, with plans to develop more. “Our biggest economic development challenge is to make sure local companies have trained local residents for the jobs they have open,” Johns said. “They have made it clear that they want to hire local.”

To infuse its program with new blood, Marinette Marine has signed a contract with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College that calls for the college to provide 130,000 person-hours of training to the company’s incumbent employees and new hires in four trade areas: electricians, shipfitters, welders, and pipe fitters.

A former Goodwill Industries building has been remodeled for the training, which is specialized due to the Navy’s unique requirements. Now called the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Training Center, the 16,000-square-foot facility now sports classrooms, a computer lab, welding and electrical labs, a pipe fitting/ship fitting lab, and sundry offices.

“We’ve also hired a coordinator for that center and, to date, five full-time instructors in those trades areas, so it’s been a bit of a scramble,” acknowledged Pat O’Hara, dean of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “It’s certainly a very large contract. Rarely do we run into this major a commitment.”

In this case, one opportunity has spawned another, as the college is thinking beyond Marinette Marine in shaping a strategy to become the premier marine training center in the Midwest.

The willingness of Marinette and Menominee school superintendents to modify their vocational programs to meet Marinette Marine’s need for special welding skills has even more would-be employees on the fast track. The company, in turn, provides Marinette and Menominee High Schools with welding supplies and scrap steel from its production areas, enabling students to graduate with a welding certificate.

Come June, the company will be able to hire people directly out of both high schools, and they’ll have the required basic training.

Challenged workforce

The company’s workforce is almost equally split between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but not all reside in the “twin cities” of Marinette and Menominee, two border communities separated only by the Menominee River and a state line.

Depending on skill level, a Marinette Marine employee can start at $14 or $15 per hour, and in three years reach the journeyman level and earn an hourly wage in the mid $20s with full benefits. “We now have to take that next step, where we get even better at manufacturing, and what I mean by that is we’re going to have ships about six months apart, with two per year,” Goddard said. “We’re going to have to get really good at developing work stations, and being very proficient at what we do in a repetitive kind of manner at those work stations. That’s one challenge that I give to my workforce.”

They are taking on the challenge to be part of what Goddard calls a transformative period in company history, a transformation made possible by the Navy work and parent company investment, and a local tax incremental finance district.

“Obviously, LCS is the hallmark of what we are doing,” he said, pointing to a combat ship getting a few finishing touches along the shipyard’s waterfront, one that will be delivered to the Navy on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6.

The Navy can outfit these versatile ships with additional guns and missile-carrying helicopters for surface battles. The vessels also can be used in interdiction, piracy operations, anti-mine warfare and mine neutralization, and anti-submarine warfare (these days, sonar is used to locate enemy submarines, and helicopters drop the torpedoes in the water). LCS vessels also serve to protect larger ships in places like the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to shut down.

Marinette Marine also is building a survey vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This particular ship, about 200 feet long and 2,500 tons, is equipped with a large, “fish-finding” sonar transducer that goes down into the water and actually conducts fish counts. “It has enough definition that they can tell the types of fish,” Goddard noted.

Another boat under construction is an Alaskan region research vessel, or ARRV, which is 260 feet long and weighs almost 4,000 tons. Built with a snout bow and heavy hull for ice-breaking, an essential tool for a vessel that will travel the Gulf of Alaska, the ARRV will be used for research by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Fincantieri family

Marinette Marine is owned by the Fincantieri Marine Group, which purchased it from the Manitowoc Co. in 2008. In addition to Marinette Marine, there are three Wisconsin companies in the Fincantieri group – the Green Bay-based Ace Marine, a special purpose facility that is building 45-foot response boats for the U.S. Coast Guard, a contract it shares with Kvichak Marine Industries in Kent, Wash., and Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, which does commercial repair work. The group has secured an $89.6 million order from the Coast Guard to build 40 additional reponse boat-mediums at Ace Marine.

Marinette Marine’s shipyard is undergoing a facelift thanks in part to a $73 million investment by Fincantieri. Ships are constructed as part of an intricate, multi-building process, and some of the buildings are being improved or expanded to handle the LCS work. These ships have about 40 modules, some as large as 40 by 60 feet, which are assembled and stitched together along with machinery and other components.

“The thing that surprises most people, especially those who haven’t been in a shipyard, is how large-scale things are, and the kind of craftsmanship that is still involved,” Goddard said. “It’s still very much a trade and a special skill when you see the size of these steel modules that we weld together and outfit, and there’s also the sophistication of these ships.”

Marinette Marine’s long-term future could be influenced by proposed cuts to the defense budget, which now are the subject of political jujitsu between the White House and its congressional opponents. Automatic cuts of about $500 billion over 10 years now are planned, and the LCS program is considered vulnerable. In addition, U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, who championed Marinette Marine’s LCS contract award, is retiring from the Senate.

The Navy now has 313 ships, about half of the 600-ship Navy that President Reagan once envisioned. Since the life of a ship is nominally 30 years, the Navy has to add about 30 new ships a year. “Over the last couple of years, they have been holding to that,” Goddard noted. “From what we read about budget submittal this year, they are going to buy only 10 ships, but I’ll be happy if they continue to buy two LCS ships from us each year.

“I’m not going to be greedy. I’ll take two per year.”

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