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Top-Paying Shipbuilding Jobs Growing With Navy Fleet Expansion

Under the U.S. Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan, the fleet is scheduled to grow by nearly 50 ships to a total of 355. Combined with plans to replace existing vessels in an aging fleet, more than 10 new ships will need to be built every year for the next 30 years.

For shipbuilders, that adds up to unprecedented job stability.

Unlike previous cycles of boom and bust, current long-range shipbuilding plans are based on stable fleet growth and replacement over an extended time frame. The types of ships and capabilities built over this 30-year timespan will evolve along with new technology and threats. Growing the fleet also means significant work to upgrade and refurbish existing ships kept in service longer while new ships are being added.

All this activity is creating a lot of job opportunities at U.S. Navy shipyards. According to Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, between 18,000 and 25,000 additional workers are needed to build a 350-ship navy. With indirect roles like suppliers included, the ramp-up could create 50,000 jobs.

“It’s a great time to be in shipbuilding,” says Aerotek Recruiting Manager Josh West, who is busy hiring over 500 skilled tradespeople. “We’re bringing in people from all over the country to work on this project, which pays pipe welders upwards of $50 an hour — plus $120 per diem.”

The shipbuilding industry is hiring for a wide range of jobs, such as:

  • Welders
  • Pipefitters
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Machinists
  • Riggers
  • Painters
  • Blasters
  • Grinders
  • Other skilled trades

They’re busy building and overhauling massive aircraft carriers and submarines. The impressive ships built at these top-paying trade jobs bring a sense of pride and fulfillment, as they are deployed around the world. If that interests you, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • You’ll need to move to a shipbuilding hub like Newport News, Virginia, home of the largest naval base and the largest shipyard in the country, for at least a two-year contract.
  • No matter how skilled you are, you’ll need to be open to learning new practices and techniques, as many materials used on U.S. Navy ships aren’t found in too many shops.

Having said that, there is a lot of opportunity in the maritime industry these days. We asked West for some more details:

Where are the shipbuilding jobs?

Government-contracted military shipbuilders are hiring where naval ships are being built, but that shipbuilding is concentrated a few locations. For example, there are just two companies that build the Navy’s nuclear submarines, in Groton, Connecticut, and Newport News, Virginia. As of this writing, there are close to 500 openings for skilled tradespeople in Virginia.

Beyond submarines, shipbuilders are also busy constructing new surface ships like the USS John F. Kennedy, a technologically advanced, 100,000-ton aircraft carrier that’s two or three years from completion.

USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier that’s midway through its 50-year lifespan. “We strip it down to its basic structure and we replace everything on it,” West said. “The only thing that’s left is the bare bones, the hull of the ship.”

What kinds of skilled tradespeople are being hired?

Constructing an aircraft carrier or a submarine is an incredibly complex project that requires many different kinds of skilled tradespeople.

“When it comes to skill sets, we’re hiring all the way across the board — primarily welders and fitters, but we do a lot of the support trades as well — electricians, pipefitters, outside machinists, riggers, painters, blasters, grinders…” West said.

Do you have to live in Newport News, Virginia, to get these jobs?

“We are able to offer a competitive per diem, so probably 95 percent of our workforce here is from out of state,” West said. “A lot of them don’t want to go permanent because they’ve made careers moving from job to job — a practice that often means more money. This is what they do for a living. They’re traveling contractors. We call them road warriors.”

Aerotek uses a dedicated team of 30 recruiters to find candidates from across the country.

“I would say ‘all over the world,’ but one of the requirements here is you have to be a U.S. citizen, due to the nature of the work that we’re doing on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines,” West said.

Is a security clearance required?

Workers need a security clearance to do some of these jobs, but not most of them.

“There are some sections of the ships or subs where you do have to have a clearance — mainly working on the propulsion systems or the reactor, the ‘power plant,’” West said. He estimated that, out of more than 400 active contract employees, around 80 have security clearances.

What qualities do shipbuilders need to work on Aerotek’s current contracts?

The standards and skills needed are high.

“If we’re hiring welders who are welding a submarine that’s going to have 300 sailors on it and travel 2,000 feet below sea level for six months, you’ve got to make sure you’re bringing in the right people,” West said.

Structural welders, sheet metal welders and pipe welders must undergo training in a specialized “weld school” and must pass a number of weld tests before they actually start the job.

“We have to teach our welders how we weld out here because it’s a different process — different metals, different materials,” West said. “The metal that we use on aircraft carriers and submarines is a different type of steel. It’s not like your average carbon, copper-nickel or carbon steel. It’s high-yield steel that’s more durable.”

Pipe welders must master “mirror welding,” using a mirror to see behind a pipe so they can weld it in a tight, confined space.

But most important is having the right attitude. “People who are coachable and want to be part of really important work often come out of this program with in-demand skills that benefit them through retirement,” West said. “If they do a good job here, they can pretty much go work anywhere in the world.”

If you think you have the right skills and attitude, explore our shipbuilding opportunities: