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Preserving the Art of Shipbuilding and Repair

More needs to be done to train the shipyard workers of tomorrow. Here are some suggestions.

By MarEx 2014-05-15 15:32:00

By William W. Crow

Shipbuilding and repair is an industry critical to the security and strength of all nations. The U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine, along with their counterparts in other countries, help preserve the security of commercial trade lanes and provide humanitarian and disaster relief when needed around the globe.

Despite recent challenges in the U.S. involving sequestration and reductions in Coast Guard, Navy and merchant marine budgets, U.S. lawmakers have become increasingly aware of the debilitating long-term impact of these cuts on our military and civilian fleets. This has led to increased focus on permanent, far-reaching solutions to maintain, modernize and grow our fleets. Shipbuilding and repair require multiyear planning, and secure funding is critical to these efforts. 

More Funding, Yes, but More Training too

An equally daunting global challenge that cannot be overlooked is ensuring a technically skilled workforce. Few industries, other than shipbuilding and repair, rely so heavily on experts who develop their knowledge and skills primarily through experience. 

The industry’s aging workforce is not unique to any single nation. Many regions are renewing efforts to build educational options that engage new tradespeople in marine work. However, capturing the experience of master tradespeople to teach these skills requires valuable time and relentless effort. Additionally, tight budgets in commercial ship repair do not allow for extensive on-the-job instruction, which was a primary method for training skilled tradespeople in the past.

In many areas across the globe, companies are working collaboratively to establish strong workforce pipelines and increase the volume and scope of instructional opportunities available to the incoming workforce. There are two areas of opportunity that could immediately benefit the industry overall:

One is increased investment in the development of technologies that maximize human input. Examples are the use of robotic welders, coatings that can be applied more efficiently, or the use of imaging to facilitate design work.

The second is capturing the experiential knowledge of master craftsmen in both written and visual formats that can then be shared via a virtual repository. An all-out, industry-wide effort must occur through all communications channels available, including conferences, publications and symposia. No one region or company can achieve these results on their own without enormous investment. 

Since our industry often relies on workers who come from a variety of supporting companies and regions, it makes sense to leverage and combine resources. Publications such as this one can provide an excellent forum for implementing these ideas by convening working groups at various conferences, issuing a series of reports on innovations and promising areas of research, and publishing feature stories on instructional strategies that are working well. – MarEx

Mr. Crow is President of the Virginia Ship Repair Association in Norfolk, representing 230 member companies in the ship repair and related industries. He is a retired U.S. Navy Captain.