By Stephen Singer The Hartford Courant
April 18. 2016 3:19PM
As many as 850 high-skilled, well-paid manufacturing and other jobs are being filled this year and nearly 4,000 in the next 15 years, establishing a workforce of 18,000 at the submarine manufacturer’s sites in Groton and Quonset Point, R.I.
About 4,000 workers have been hired since 2012 as Electric Boat builds two submarines a year, a coveted expansion of the fleet that was eclipsed by shifting military policies at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the drive against terrorism.
Finding and recruiting workers has stirred a regional network of community colleges, vocational schools and training and recruitment centers coordinating efforts for job training and curriculum development to match applicants with jobs at Electric Boat and small manufacturers.
Maura M. Dunn, vice president of human resources and administration at Electric Boat, said the subsidiary of General Dynamics Corp. has nearly doubled its recruiting staff and expects to spend more than $1 billion to build workplaces for submarine construction. She compared the recruiting and personnel screening to fully staffing several companies.
Electric Boat also needs to replace between 275 and 300 workers who retire annually from the company’s aging work force, Dunn said.
“It’s been 20 years since we’ve had to do this kind of hiring,” she said. “The numbers are big and our ability to staff and maintain our employment level is really critical to our nation.”
The types of jobs needed to build a submarine — a massive machine with more than 1 million parts — include engineers, machinists, carpenters, painters, welders and others. Administrative workers such as managers and procurement specialists also are required.
Demand is so strong that John Hyde has been conditionally hired as a machinist at Electric Boat while still a student in a manufacturing class at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton. Hyde, 31, lost his shipping job of six years when WestRock Paper Mill in Uncasville closed earlier this year.
He said he enjoys the “hands-on aspect of doing things” and has long been interested in manufacturing. “But at the time I had a decent job,” he said.
Workforce development in Eastern Connecticut is not new. But Electric Boat’s large-scale hiring “certainly contributed and definitely sharpened our focus,” said John Beauregard, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, a key agency organizing recruitment and training.
Gene Harper, Electric Boat’s retired hiring manager who is now helping to recruit, said finding work was a mystery to many.
“How do I get into manufacturing? That was the main question,” he said. “We didn’t have a good answer.”
About two dozen regional agencies, schools and colleges, representatives of federal offices and others organized worker recruitment and education and training programs, meeting regularly and making sure “everyone is responsible for certain actions,” Harper said.
Most new workers seeking retraining range in age from their 20s to their 50s, “looking to improve or change careers,” said Kelli Vallieres, president of the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, a group of 53 companies.
Hiring at Electric Boat is expected to spur more work among suppliers, and manufacturers in Eastern Connecticut are organized to capitalize on job growth. The Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance is working with Three Rivers and Quinebaug Valley community colleges and area technical high schools to “make sure what is taught at colleges is what industry wants,” Vallieres said.
Electric Boat and manufacturers in the alliance “get good first dibs on hiring,” she said.
The boost in manufacturing jobs is good news for Connecticut’s slow-growth economy. The state’s unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in March is stubbornly higher than the U.S. rate of 5 percent and a state Department of Labor economist said job growth is insufficient to employ all the workers entering the labor force.
Hiring at Electric Boat follows a shift in military policy. Submarine construction slackened after the Cold War ended in the early 1990s and following the 9/11 attacks a decade later, submarines were sidelined in favor of drones and stepped-up intelligence targeting terrorist groups.
Submarines are now getting renewed attention as the U.S. confronts different threats: Russian advances in Europe, Chinese moves in the South China Sea and Iranian activity in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama’s budget this year included $7 billion to $8 billion for submarine work, up 11 percent from the previous budget, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said.
“Believe me, there is no other program I’m aware of in the Department of Defense getting an 11 percent increase,” Courtney said.
Dunn, Electric Boat’s personnel chief, said the shipbuilder has spent the past two years preparing for the increased workload.
“It’s a big job, but we’re up to the task,” she said.