Company doubling jobs with defense contract

Local college trains the future shipbuilders

November 22, 2011

By Patty Murray

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A shipbuilder in northeastern Wisconsin plans to double its workforce thanks to a contract with the United States Navy. Marinette Marine will build at least ten Littoral Combat Ships. Called the LCS for short, the ships represent a new direction for the Navy, according to company president Charles Goddard.

The LCS is small by military standards. The ships are less than 400 feet in length and are able to navigate in shallow waters close to shore. Each ship costs an estimated $400 million and takes a year and a half to construct. Once the initial ten ships are built and delivered Goddard says his company will have the opportunity to bid on more. He says the Navy may eventually want 55 littorals.

The company is located in Marinette, Wisc. It’s a city of about 20,000 located 60 miles north of Green Bay on the shore of Lake Michigan. The region has a long history of shipbuilding dating back more than one hundred years. The company itself began making ships in 1942 and has employed generations of area residents.

Goddard says the company currently employs 1,100 workers. “Seven hundred of those are hourly wage earners," he says. "They’re union employees, they’re steel fitters, they’re welders, pipe fitters, they’re electricians, they’re painters, they’re outfitters.” He says Marinette Marine is hiring 35 to 40 people each month, “so by the end of the year we’ll be at 1,200 and over the next year and a half we’ll essentially double the work force here.”

To ensure a supply of qualified workers Marinette Marine is working with a local technical college. Only 15 percent of local residents have four-year college degrees. So technical training is important to ensure skilled workers. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, NWTC, is instituting two new degree programs. One is a certification in Marine Construction. It’s a three-semester course that teaches students a variety of welding techniques, safety requirements, and familiarizes them with blue prints. The other is an Associates’ Degree in marine engineering, which teaches more technically involved aspects of shipbuilding.

According to Pat O’Hara, the Dean of NWTC’s Marinette Campus, the new training programs are part of the school’s efforts to brand the region as a ship building powerhouse. “That’s going to be our North Coast Marine Training center, coining this as the North Coast of the United States," O'Hara says. "Our goal is to be the premiere marine manufacturing training center in the Midwest.”

Student Logan Dettman is in the inaugural class of the marine construction program. After he completes his schooling he says his first stop will be Marinette Marine’s human resources department. “I feel like getting a job is hard today and with a little bit of schooling, [you can] get your foot in the door and get a good job there," he says. "The pay is a little higher and everything else.”

Marinette Marine president Chuck Goddard says people like Dettman may well be the next chapter in the company’s seventy year history. “There’s a great heritage of shipbuilding here and there’s a lot of people here, their fathers worked in the shipyard, their uncles, their mom," he says. "And they’re continuing that tradition.”              

Besides direct employment with Marinette Marine, the Navy contract is expected to have a manufacturing “ripple effect.” The company buys parts from other Wisconsin based suppliers. Also the Navy requires its contract holders to buy American made parts whenever possible. The company is also spending $75 million dollars to improve and expand its shipyard. Local contractors have been hired to build a new construction building and a new paint shop.

Marinette Marine is owned by an Italian company, Fincantieri. It was one of two companies tapped to build the LCS. The other is, Austal USA, based in Mobile Alabama.

Marinette Marine’s first LCS was the USS Freedom, which has is already being used by the Navy. The second ship, the USS Fort Worth, will be delivered early in 2012. Work is underway on the third vessel.