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Apprenticeships make our nation stronger

By Jennifer Boykin

Mar 6, 2019

In today’s economy, many workers know they need to better their skills to move up in the workplace, but have trouble juggling the pressures of parenthood and school — all while working to earn a paycheck. Elise Feldt knows this as well as anyone.

When Elise was 24 years old, she took on the responsibility of being a single mother. Her marriage was ending and she had two young sons to support. Elise finally found two jobs — one at a local hardware store and another at a local pub — to help make ends meet.

Her wages helped Elise and her family of three. But paying the bills, sending her two toddlers to daycare, and putting food on the table still proved difficult. What Elise wanted is what most people want — the opportunity to work a stable full-time job with benefits and enjoy a quality life outside of work. For Elise, a quality life also meant being a full-time mom to her two children.

Elise found that opportunity at The Apprentice School, the cornerstone of talent development for Newport News Shipbuilding. For 100 years, The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding has trained and developed a steady supply of skilled workers to build nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy. Doors that were once open only to teenage boys now welcome a diverse group of workers seeking to be part of something greater than themselves.

Elise was accepted into the school’s pipefitter apprenticeship program, one of 19 shipbuilding trades. She immediately began receiving a paycheck. Each week, she spent two days learning her craft in a classroom and three days learning to construct and overhaul Navy ships.

After two years and three different rotations on aircraft carriers and submarines, Elise discovered her dream career in modeling and simulation — one of the school’s eight advanced programs. Today, she is two months shy of her bachelor’s degree in modeling and simulation and visualization engineering — working to finish her senior capstone project. Most importantly, she’s home by 6 p.m. to be the full-time mom she wants to be.

We believe it is our responsibility to create a work environment in which our employees want to be part of what we’re building.

That’s what apprenticeships are all about — providing future generations with lessons learned and the opportunity to enjoy a rewarding career and quality way of life.

Like traditional colleges and universities, The Apprentice School offers professional societies, student organizations, and athletics. Partnerships with local community colleges and universities provide our apprentices the opportunity to earn one of four associate degrees or a bachelor’s degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. Unlike its traditional counterparts, The Apprentice School offers a tuition-free education and full-time employment. Despite these perks, apprentices have no obligation to stay with the company after graduation. Why? Because we believe it is our responsibility to create a work environment in which our employees want to be part of what we’re building.

Our alumni represent third-, fourth- and fifth-generation shipbuilders who share a pride in their school, their craft, and their contribution to our nation’s defense. Dr. Jill Biden has experienced shipbuilder pride as the ship’s sponsor for the Virginia-class submarine Delaware and as the commencement speaker for our most recent Apprentice School graduation. She perfectly captured their contributions when she said, “Your work makes our nation strong.”

I believe the same is true for apprenticeships, which leverage the wisdom of past generations and provide opportunity for our future leaders to succeed. Fortunately for us, the value of apprenticeship was recognized very early in our company’s history. One hundred years later, the school remains the backbone of our workforce development and our success as shipbuilders.

As president of Newport News Shipbuilding, Jennifer Boykin has responsibility for the more than 23,000 shipbuilders who design, build and maintain the most complex ships in the world: nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. Newport News Shipbuilding was founded in 1886, has about $4 billion in revenues and is the largest industrial employer in Virginia.