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Wanted: Workers with diploma, skills

The following OPED appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on Sunday, March 25, 2012

Close to 20,000 skilled jobs in ship repair and shipbuilding will be available in Hampton Roads in the next five to seven years. But a diploma will be required.

THE VIRGINIA Ship Repair Association is proud to join WHRO and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in supporting the “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” initiative. We believe the future of Hampton Roads and our vital maritime industry depends on encouraging young people to graduate and become contributing members of our community.

The decision to drop out affects not just the students who leave high school; it directly and significantly affects their neighborhoods. Communities with high dropout rates see higher crime, homelessness and addiction, as well as increased dependency on government assistance programs.

Studies have shown that nationally on average, a dropout will earn more than a quarter of a million dollars less than a high school graduate over the course of a lifetime and, in aggregate, cost the nation $100 billion annually in lost revenue and increased social services.

A high school diploma is mandatory today to open the door to a career in ship repair or shipbuilding, as well as to earn a middle class income. Experts estimate that American businesses are in need of 97 million middle- and high-skill workers, yet only 45 million Americans possess the necessary education and skills to qualify for these positions.

There will be close to 20,000 skilled jobs available in ship repair and shipbuilding in Hampton Roads in the next five to seven years as baby boomers retire. These vacancies and the majority of job openings over the next decade will require at least some postsecondary education, making them inaccessible for anyone without a high school diploma.

A community’s economic growth depends on a workforce qualified to learn the diverse skills required by the marketplace. The impact of unprepared job seekers can be devastating. While it’s true that in many areas throughout the country, the depressed economy has greatly limited opportunities — even for those with high school diplomas — the same is not true in Hampton Roads. The national statistics may be grim, but here, the picture is positive for students who graduate from high school.

Hampton Roads is blessed with a natural resource that creates commerce that grows significantly each year: a port only 18 miles from open ocean on one of the world’s deepest, natural ice-free, bridge-free harbors. It is no surprise that Hampton Roads has a growing commercial trade and is the home of the largest naval base in the world. The importance of the port brings opportunity for satisfying work for those seeking meaningful careers.

The ship repair industry in Hampton Roads, in concert with the robust shipbuilding industry, is responsible for more than 40,000 current positions: good-paying jobs with competitive benefits like health care, tuition support and retirement.

These and future positions that will be available to those who demonstrate an ability to learn, a willingness to be trained and a desire to contribute to the economic growth of this community, stand on the foundation of high school graduation. These numbers represent direct employment and don’t take into account the significant number of jobs created indirectly in the region by our industry. The combined industries generate more than $5 billion in revenue annually in Hampton Roads.

According to a 2011 industry survey, an average shipyard tradesman salary is $1,300 more per year than the average salary for all Hampton Roads workers. When all shipyard employees are included, they out-earn the average employee by more than 30 percent. Our skilled workforce is highly trained in complex technical work involving mechanics, electronics, chemistry, hydraulics, engineering and systems integration — transferable skills that stay with employees for a lifetime.

The ship repair industry has a vested interest in encouraging young people to stay in school. From a business perspective, we want workers who are prepared to maintain the high standard of excellence in the ship repair industry. We want our youth to sustain our legacy — the “Strength Behind the Fleet.”


Malcolm Branch is president and CEO of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, representing 230 companies repairing and modernizing Navy ships. He is a retired Navy pilot and former commanding officer of the aircraft carrier George Washington.