David Ragan rounds Turn 4 in the NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 on February 19, 2024, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.

David Ragan rounds Turn 4 in the NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 on February 19, 2024, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Inside the Navy’s slick effort to find workers to build submarines

The BuildSubmarines ad blitz is part of an innovative campaign to shore up one particular aspect of the industrial base.

The U.S. Navy, along with its shipbuilders and their thousands of specialty suppliers, need more than 100,000 workers to help build attack and ballistic missile submarines over the coming decade. That’s according to BuildSubmarines.com, whose ubiquitous ads you may have seen during reality TV shows, on NASCAR hoods, at WNBA games, and amid Major League Baseball broadcasts. But what is that website and who runs it?

BuildSubmarines.com is the public face of an innovative, multi-organization effort to woo American workers to join a crucial part of the defense industrial workforce. The hub is BlueForge Alliance, a not-for-profit organization founded in November 2022 with a Navy contract and a mandate to gin up a new generation of shipbuilders. 

“Our nation depends on the American manufacturer,” Rob Gorham, the company’s co-founder and -CEO said in a 2023 press release. “BlueForge Alliance is committed to ensuring that American manufacturing is primed to support national security priorities, and to engaging and partnering with the industrial base in unprecedented ways to ensure our responsibility to our Navy and nation.” 

Last year, the organization launched the BuildSubmarines.com website as part of its “We Build Giants” ad blitz that targeted high school graduates, troops leaving the service, trade workers looking for something new, and other job seekers. In September, the company added a BuildSubmarines.com career portal powered by recruiting site ZipRecruiter. The site has since amassed more than 3 million visits and 147,000 clicks to apply for jobs, said Katherine Dames, who leads BlueForge Alliance’s workforce division.

“For individuals who already have the skills and experience in welding, machining, electrical, additive manufacturing, or engineering, we can connect them to immediate openings across the country through BuildSubmarines.com,” Dames said. “For individuals who think manufacturing might be the career for them, we can connect them to high-quality training—sometimes at no cost to the individual.”

One such program is the two-year-old Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing initiative run by an agency of the Virginia state government. It provides workers with nearly four months of training—for free!—and enables them to leave with a certification in additive manufacturing, CNC machining, non-destructive testing, quality control inspection/metrology, or welding.

“It's completely funded by the U.S. Navy, it is tuition-free for accepted students, and the housing is no cost,” said Debbie Fuchs, strategic communications and marketing manager for the state’s Institute For Advanced Learning And Research. “It's a really intense process…basically going to school from 8 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.] every day, Monday through Friday for 16 weeks.”

“Specifically, the Navy is working to train people and place them in the submarine industrial base and those manufacturing jobs. So the big national campaign is ‘build submarines’,” Fuchs said.

Since 2021, the Danville-based program has graduated 472 students, with 60 percent placed in submarine and defense industrial base jobs, according to IALR’s website.

That’s just a fraction of what’s needed, but every bit helps.

A 'sensible notion'

Navy officials did not answer questions about the origins of this innovative approach and how much money they are pouring into it. But the idea that a branch of the U.S. military would fund an aggressive effort to help a key industrial segment find and develop workers is logical, one expert said.

“It’s a very sensible notion of building up the workforce, training workers for skilled jobs. And you've seen that across many different industries, different times. And so it's doable, and it's sensible. The question is time, of course. It takes, really, years to take someone off the street and turn them into a skilled welder, which is one of those critical skills you need for submarines. And you have to get enough people interested in, frankly, blue-collar jobs that are a little dirty and a little uncomfortable, but pay well,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ security program. 

“And the Navy needs it, because the Navy wants to expand submarine production. I mean, it's basically unable to even produce what it's been funded to produce, and wants to expand it. Now, what's been funded is two Virginia-class submarines a year plus one Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. They can't even build that. And many people want to go to one ballistic missile submarine and three Virginias. So to do that, you have to expand the workforce. And there are other elements of the supply chains you have to expand also. But workforce has been one of the major constraints.”

Indeed, the shipbuilding industrial base is “still losing more people than is healthy on a year-by-year basis,” Nickolas Guertin, the Navy’s acquisition chief, told lawmakers on April 17.

“We need to get into a better place so we can understand how to interact fluidly, flexibly, and efficiently with industry so we do a better job of building these ships,” Guertin said. “These welders, pipefitters, electricians, pipefitters, they are vital to our ability to provide the resources the Navy and Marine Corps are going to use to defend the nation. We need to stop thinking of them as fungible and think of them as strategic assets.”

Building up the workforce is key to the Navy’s 30-year plan to grow to 387 subs and ships, but the problem is hardly confined to the future. In April, for example, Naval Sea Systems Command chief Vice Adm. James Downey said the difficulties in hiring and retaining workers at Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s busy Wisconsin shipyard were contributing to the three-year delay of the $22 billion program guided missile frigate program.

A persistent problem

Worker shortages had been building for years—and then came the pandemic, said one industry leader.

“There was already a challenge in the manufacturing workforce, and we were gonna have to ramp labor to meet the demand. COVID accelerated that. What we didn't expect is inflation,” said Christopher Kastner, CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries. 

That inflation, coupled with rising minimum wages, shrank the pay gap between entry-level shipbuilders and what someone could make working retail, he said. And it’s hard getting workers to choose a career in manufacturing.

“It's challenging, tough work. And the cost to switch for them is very simple. And that's where we have high attrition rates,” Kastner told reporters at a media lunch in April. “So we're working very hard with the Navy and with our local communities to try to get programs in place that make it positive for someone to become a shipbuilder in the community.”

In March, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro returned from a tour of Japanese and South Korean shipyards with strong words for U.S. contractors.

“For those companies that are having problems in retention, damn it, take better care of your people,” Del Toro said, as reported by USNI News. “If they can’t find housing in your local communities, well, then work with the governments to build housing in the local communities to get about it. That’s what problem-solvers do.”

Kastner said the company is already working to meet people where they are. 

“We need to provide more flexibility for shipbuilders, when they come in. Historically, it had been a very binary arrangement: ‘come to work or you're gonna get fired’, right? So we provide much more flexibility for shipbuilders now,” including time off at the beginning of the process while new workers acclimate to the job, he said. “We used to just train them and send them out to a crew. Now, we train them, we bring their foreman into the training center and we put them out as a team.” 

HII is also recruiting outside immediate areas around shipyards and using data analytics to determine which areas are more successful and targeted incentives. 

“We actually just started a pilot program down in Mississippi, where if you stay and your attendance is good, and you're consistent for this and add no work violations, we're going to increase your pay by a certain amount over that time period. We're paying machinists more in Newport News, [Virginia], in some places where it's critical to get the job done. So we're doing targeted incentives in various areas that we have critical needs,” Kastner said. “We have Chick-fil-A at Ingalls…So we are having to meet the new employee where they're at versus just assuming they're going to come in with two years of training and metal shop at high school and wanting to get right to work in the shipyard.”

BlueForge Alliance and its partners have their work cut out for them. But if their template works, other parts of the Pentagon and defense industry might come knocking. Already, the company has a much smaller contract to help build up a 3D-printing industry on Guam.

For now, the focus is on public outreach “to attract Americans into well-paying careers in submarine manufacturing,” Dames said.