You may remember that back in May 2022, I attended a shipbuilding conference in Mobile, Alabama. In a blog post overflowing with maritime metaphors – I couldn’t resist! – I wrote about some of the fantastic things I heard from the presenters there. In fact, I was so impressed by the workforce strategies of one large shipbuilder, Austal, that I caught up with it a year later to hear how everything was going. I got to chat with its team members Michelle Alcathie, Rodney Patrick and Michelle Bowden to learn more. Not surprisingly, it’s maintained its amazing culture during the past 12 months, and its growth has only accelerated. For clarity and readability, I’ve paraphrased and summarized our conversation.
Thanks so much for talking with me today. What are Austal’s biggest workforce needs these days?
Honestly, Austal is in the same boat as other shipbuilders. There are numerous new defense and other maritime contracts, and the company is growing significantly. We need workers from all the skilled trades, plus engineers, program managers, and welders. We anticipate we’ll need 1,200 additional workers over the next 16-18 months.
What unique practices does Austal use to recruit workers? In terms of recruitment, do you focus on any underrepresented groups (e.g., formerly incarcerated people, youth, women, people with special needs, etc.)? If so, I’d love to hear how you launched and maintain that program.
The main thrust of our company’s recruitment efforts is with schools: high schools, tech schools with welding programs, and junior colleges throughout the state. We are constantly sending employees into the schools to talk about careers at Austal.
Our pitch is also crafted to excite young people. Of course, we start with the competitive salaries. We intentionally pay more than our competitors. In conversations with young people, we talk about work-life balance, and push our new 4x10 schedule, which allows the employee three-day weekends, or they can work on Friday and earn overtime pay.
It’s worth mentioning that partnership is a huge part of our recruitment efforts. We have a regional Build Your Future campaign where we’ve teamed up with other shipbuilders to promote our careers together. Our tagline is “Where’s your office?” and we have beautiful pictures of welders, pipefitters and other specialties in action.
To reach new populations, we’ve developed a reputation as a second chance employer. Law enforcement organizations know about us and send people our way. We not only give these workers a chance, but we truly invest in them, and many move up into supervisory positions.
Even with these strategies working, we’re not content to rest on our laurels. We’re collaborating across human resources to try new strategies. We have a new refugee employment program. We’ve started recruiting from new communities, especially when there’s an opportunity to swoop in and offer jobs to displaced workers. For example, in Tupelo, Mississippi, a furniture company was closing, and we offered jobs to its former employees. In fact, we partnered with Alabama Credit Union to create a special program where any of these new employees can walk into a bank with their offer letter and immediately secure a low-interest relocation loan.
That’s fabulous on the recruitment front. How are you retaining workers?
Our keystone strategy is apprenticeship. We just accepted our new class of 84 apprentices, one of up to three cohorts every year. No prior experience is required to become an apprentice; all our students are trained over a four-year period. Apprentices can specialize in pipefitting, outfitting, electrical and more. These are registered apprenticeships, with the Department of Labor’s journeyperson certificate in various specialties (electrical, welding, etc.) awarded at the end.
Not surprisingly, because the apprenticeship program is such a clear and tangible investment in our workers, it is highly sought after. We receive 600 to 800 applications every year. If someone doesn’t get into a formal apprenticeship, we’ve created the Trade Assistant program. In that program, the worker is taught the basics, so they have more and stronger skills, and then they are assigned a mentor that also ensures they build soft skills. Many successful Trade Assistants are then accepted into the formal apprenticeship program, so it’s just one more pipeline to advancement at Austal.
Take us inside your ships. What are the main tenets of the Austal culture? What are you doing to build and strengthen it?
We believe strongly in people, processes and results. Because many of our contracts are long-term in nature, we can be very intentional in our growth – and we have great career pathways for our people. We, of course, value safety and win awards for our safety nearly every year. Our workers are proud to show off our “Austal blue” colors. They love the company-branded t-shirts so much, they requested more to give to their families and friends. The company responded, and now each employee gets three t-shirts of any size they want, for themselves or to share, every year.
With the increased use of technology, we can be even more strategic as it relates to people, processes and results. Our new steel facility is equipped with robots, and we’ve trained our employees to set up and operate those robots. Our robotic welders can double our welding production while making our work environment even safer. Our human resources team even has a competition using a virtual reality welder to see who can weld the best! But far beyond fun and games, we were able to cut production of a certain ship from three years to 18 months through process innovation and continuous improvement.
That’s fabulous. Thank you all for your time today! I’m sure our readers – small and large manufacturers alike – will walk away from this interview with new and tangible strategies they can use to strengthen their workforces.