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Weathering the Storm: Workforce Insights from the Gulf Coast Shipbuilders Conference

man standing on a rock weathering a storm at sea
Credit: iStock/wildpixel

The Gulf Coast’s shipbuilding industry is a case study in resilience. Not only have the manufacturers there survived COVID-19, but during the same two-year span they have also dealt with a hurricane, rapid inflation, and a host of other calamities that would ruin most businesses. Given that they’ve bounced back, and the shipbuilding and repair industry now employs some 400,000 people nationally, it’s no surprise that America’s maritime manufacturers have some workforce lessons to teach … and we should all be listening. So, I may have gone a little “overboard” with the nautical metaphors in this post, but it’s only because I was so inspired by the people I met recently.

ships at a dock on the water

During the 2022 Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium annual meeting in Mobile, Alabama, it was clear that our maritime industry is navigating uncharted waters. Two manufacturing executives — Rusty Murdaugh, president of Austal, and Ben Bordelon, president and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards — presented how their companies are responding to these turbulent economic tides. Despite the headwinds, both keynote speakers radiated positivity and optimism. In the wake of Hurricane Sally, while he was frantically rebuilding his shipyard and supporting his employees, Bordelon encouraged his leadership team, saying, “I’m 100% confident we’ll make mistakes. But I’m 200% sure we will adjust and fix them.”

The stories from the dockyards were shocking, especially to a landlubber like me. Between rising metal prices and skyrocketing healthcare costs, one company spent an unbudgeted $25 million last year. Capital expenses are up significantly. One manufacturer talked about how the equipment needed to do the project raised in price by $3 million more than budgeted between the time his company submitted a bid and the time the work began. Compounding this is general unpredictability in the market, with federal and private contracts being delayed or even canceled because of political and international volatility.

New Manufacturing Workforce Attraction and Retention Strategies

Despite these headwinds, manufacturing workforce best practices were on full display. Because many of these shipyards are based in small towns, the employee base really does become a family, and it was clear that nearly everyone enjoyed their workplace cultures. Attendees talked about their companies’ all-hands meetings where every employee could voice their thoughts knowing that management would not only “hear” them but also act on their feedback. Employees told me of one such meeting where the CEO was told about the potholes in the employee parking lot and had them filled that day. Workers at a different company said that they loved their company-branded t-shirts and asked if they could have 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.

panel discussion at shipbuilders conference

One company offers a 100%, company-funded scholarship to any employee’s child who attends a trade school. Another company has a mentorship program where veteran employees can earn extra money by signing up to guide younger workers. Almost every company talked about its partnerships with local high schools and vocational schools and its on-the-job training opportunities for young people. It was encouraging to hear that shipbuilders are rethinking their hiring criteria and giving people with past criminal convictions a fair chance. More and more, companies are rocking the boat by challenging the status quo and trying new attraction and retention strategies.

Of course, these are just small gestures, but there are more tsunamic changes going on as well. CEOs are looking at daily workforce reports: Retention, attrition, recruitment, and other workforce metrics are now a daily concern for company leaders. Companies are setting up “Employee First” funds to provide anything a worker requests over and above their salary. One CEO stated, “We’ve spent thousands of dollars on shoes, blankets, food, and other basic needs. We haven’t had a single abuse of this fund. No one is requesting beer or flat-screen TVs. Our employees are going through hard times, and we’re there for them. It’s as simple as that.” Collectively, companies have banded together to create the National Maritime Education Council, which is working to standardize curricula, portable credentials, assessments, instructor training, and more. The Build Your Future campaign — with the great tagline, “Where’s your office?” — is another joint effort to inspire young people to pursue maritime manufacturing careers.

A Refreshing Approach to Manufacturing Workforce Development

As I left the Azalea City, I realized the CEOs I talked to all shared an enlightened, forward thinking strategy for manufacturing workforce development. Rather than playing the same old zero-sum game of poaching workers that pervades many industries, the shipbuilders of the Gulf Coast are practicing a new ethos of mutuality and cooperation. The maritime industry here recognizes that while employees may move from one company to another, every company shares the responsibility for training, upskilling, and caring for its workers, because it’s one big shipbuilding community. As one CEO said, “Your worker today might be my worker tomorrow, and vice versa, so let’s make sure we give them all the skills and support we can while they’re with us.” This shared approach to workforce development is one way to ensure America’s shipbuilding industry stays strong.

There’s no question the Gulf Coast shipbuilding industry is making waves in workforce development, and we should all get on board.

About the author

Matt Fieldman

Matthew Fieldman is currently Executive Director of America Works, a nationwide initiative to coordinate the American manufacturing industry's training efforts, generating a more capable, skilled, and...

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