Building one of the world’s most complex, technologically advanced products requires more than just an experienced workforce. If those products are nuclear-powered U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines, that take up to ten years from design to delivery, you need highly-skilled shipbuilders dedicated to delivering best-in-class engineering. Engaged shipbuilders committed to the highest levels of quality and safety.
“It’s one of the most challenging industries, in terms of the safety standard and the type of work that we do,” explains Doug Stitzel, Vice President, Program Management Newport News Shipbuilding. “But when you look into an empty dry dock, you see this meticulous product—this ship starts to come alive. And, there are real people going into the ship, many of which are the sons and daughters of the people who have been working for our company. So, you’re not just doing something for the country, which itself is a great thing to do, but you’re doing it for the next generation and your own friends and family. It’s what drives most people to stay.”
With a diverse workforce of skilled craftsmen, engineers and scientists, Newport News Shipbuilding has built some of the most famous ships in American naval history. Throughout the past 126 years, it’s been proud of its rich heritage of producing more than 800 ships. Today, the company employs 21,000 people—many of whom are third and fourth generation shipbuilders—all focused on creating the next generation of carriers and submarines.
What does it take to deliver on this expectation? A mastery of one’s craft. Engaged employees committed to excellence and a culture where people feel valued for the difference they make.
“Our employer brand promise is ‘Build your career with us and we’ll invest in you’”, explains Chavis Harris, Director, EEO Diversity and Corporate Citizenship, Newport News Shipbuilding. “That’s in line with our corporate values and what we believe in and support.”
This investment comes in the form of on-site training and night schools, career growth opportunities, and a fully-credited apprentice school. Most importantly, those who indeed build their careers at the shipyard are recognized and celebrated for their service.
“There are not many places where you can grow like I did through experience. There aren’t many businesses like this where you can actually go up the ladder by on-the-job training. This is one of them,” explains Master Shipbuilder David Smith, Manager Multiple Functions.
“We value people. What we try to do is send the message of value in as many different ways as we can,” says Bill Bell, Newport News Shipbuilding’s Vice President, Human Resources and Administration. “One of the ways is with the Master Shipbuilder recognition and other service awards, so as people get to certain milestones, they know how much we care about them.”
Stitzel agrees, “The way you get people engaged and make sure that you’re doing the right thing within the company is by recognizing the achievements of the people in the company.”
Loyalty to the company is a commitment the leaders at Newport News Shipbuilding reward. Shipbuilders’ career achievements are celebrated, starting at the five-year award level and every five years thereafter. These celebrations include personalized manager presentations and special luncheons. But it’s at the 40-year mark that the company takes it to a whole new level.
Every April for the past 23 years, a gala event celebrates members of an elite club made up of men and women who have dedicated their careers to the shipyard. Honoring the commitment of 40 years of continuous service, these shipbuilders receive the special designation of “Master Shipbuilder.” Of the 720 Master Shipbuilders recognized this year, 35 have worked for 50 years or more, and an astounding 301 were new inductees.
“This combined 30,762 years of service, knowledge and experience is the foundation that supports and maintains our tradition of ‘Always Good Ships’”, says Newport News Shipbuilding President Matt Mulherin. “We are so fortunate to have their guidance and leadership as we bring on a new generation of shipbuilders to carry on that legacy.”
“We celebrate the fact that these are master craftsmen, master shipbuilders,” explains Harris. “That each one has given 40 consecutive un-broken years of their lives to doing something for this company.”
At the event, Master Shipbuilders are welcomed by the company’s president, vice presidents and other members of the leadership team. Each person receives a special blue blazer, with a Master Shipbuilder crest and customized buttons—as well as a symbolic jeweled pin. Commemorative photos are also taken and presented in special frames.
“The blazer is something that is particularly important to them because only Master Shipbuilders can wear them. The diamond pin and the small cast award that goes along with that—are all things that say ‘we really appreciate what you’ve done,’” explains Harris.
In fact, the blazer signifying Master Shipbuilder status is so revered and honored, that several Master Shipbuilders have requested to be buried with them.
“They’re all things that I can touch and see,” says Master Shipbuilder, Pipefitter Specialist Slater B. Matthews, Jr. “It says ‘we are part of the greatest shipyard in the world’.”
For many inductees, the night presents a moment to reflect on what it’s taken to get there and the legacy of what they can pass on to the new class of shipbuilders.
“Getting to be a Master Shipbuilder takes courage. It takes responsibility. It takes knowing the company values,” points out Matthews. “It’s just a great feeling to know that you have achieved that goal. That you have done the best with your knowledge and understanding to give the company what they want. It tells me that I have the confidence, a great skill and ability that I can teach others what I know.”
Sharing their experience and knowledge is actually critical as new shipbuilders join the ranks.
“We’ve got a tremendous gap between the very young and the more senior people in our company, and that’s really being bridged by trying to include people in the job and listening to them,” says Stitzel. “Everyone who comes in today needs an appreciation of what has gone on before in order to make sure that we don’t have to go back and repeat some of the things that we did. Our last and most major program in the new aircraft carrier design, we made sure that we put an engineer, a designer and a Master Shipbuilder at the same table, all working together to create the best product.”
At this year’s recognition event, Mulherin’s remarks to the crowd of 1,000 underscored the importance of honoring the experience and engagement of Master Shipbuilders.
“At the shipyard, we talk about the importance of having an engaged workforce. And engagement runs much deeper than an employee’s level of satisfaction. It is one’s emotion—positive or negative—toward the company and the work they do,” says Mulherin. “An engaged employee is devoted. An engaged employee is enthusiastic. An engaged employee is 100 percent involved, both in heart and mind. Being a Master Shipbuilder is the model of what it means to be engaged—to be devoted with your whole strength and soul.”
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