Washington- US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he wants to build dozens of new warships has raised many question marks on whether such an attempt is feasible in the short-term.
Interviews carried out by Reuters with ship-builders, unions and a review of public and internal documents show major obstacles to that plan.
The initiative could cost nearly $700 billion in government funding, take 30 years to complete and require hiring tens of thousands of skilled shipyard workers – many of whom don’t exist yet because they still need to be hired and trained, according to the interviews and the documents reviewed.
Trump has vowed a huge build-up of the US military to project American power in the face of an emboldened China and Russia. That includes expanding the Navy to 350 warships from 275 today. He has provided no specifics, including how soon he wants the larger fleet.
The Navy has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis a report that explores how the country’s industrial base could support higher ship production, Admiral Bill Moran, the vice chief of Naval Operations with oversight of the Navy’s shipbuilding outlook, told Reuters.
He declined to give further details. But those interviewed for this story say there are clearly two big issues – there are not enough skilled workers in the market, from electricians to welders, and after years of historically low production, shipyards and their suppliers, including nuclear fuel producers, will struggle to ramp up for years.
To be sure, the first, and biggest, hurdle for Trump to overcome is to persuade a cost-conscious Congress to fund the military buildup.
The White House declined to comment. A Navy spokeswoman said increases being considered beyond the current shipbuilding plan would require “sufficient time” to allow companies to ramp up capacity.
The two largest US shipbuilders, General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc (HII.N), told Reuters they are planning to hire a total of 6,000 workers in 2017 just to meet current orders, such as the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine.
Companies say they are eager to work with Trump to build his bigger Navy. But expanding hiring, for now, is difficult to do until they receive new orders, officials say.
Because companies won’t hire excess workers in advance, they will have a huge challenge in expanding their workforces rapidly if a shipbuilding boom materializes, said Bryan Clark, who led strategic planning for the Navy as special assistant to the chief of Naval Operations until 2013.
Union and shipyard officials say finding skilled labor just for the work they already have is challenging. Demand for pipeline welders is so strong that some can make as much as $300,000 per year, including overtime and benefits, said Danny Hendrix, the business manager at Pipeliners Local 798, a union representing 6,500 metal workers in 42 states.
Much of the work at the submarine yards also requires a security clearance that many can’t get, said Jimmy Hart, president of the Metal Trades Department at the AFL-CIO union, which represents 100,000 boilermakers, machinists, and pipefitters, among others.
To help grow a larger labor force from the ground up, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat has partnered with seven high schools and trade schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island to develop a curriculum to train a next generation of welders and engineers.
“It has historically taken five years to get someone proficient in shipbuilding,” said Maura Dunn, vice president of human resources at Electric Boat.
It can take as many as seven years to train a welder skilled enough to make the most complex type of welds, radiographic structural welds needed on a nuclear-powered submarine, said Will Lennon, vice president of the shipyard’s Columbia Class submarine program.
The Navy envisioned by Trump could create more than 50,000 jobs, the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade group representing US shipbuilders, repairers and suppliers, told Reuters.
The US shipbuilding and repairing industry employed nearly 100,000 in 2016, Labor Department statistics show. The industry had as many as 176,000 workers at the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s as the United States built up a fleet of nearly 600 warships by the end of that decade.
Expanding the Navy to 350 ships is not as simple as just adding 75 ships. Many ships in the current 275-vessel fleet need to be replaced, which means the Navy would have to buy 321 ships between now and 2046 to reach Trump’s goal, the Congressional Budget Office said in a report in February.