Despite activity not seen in decades due to increased military spending at the federal level, finding and retaining a skilled workforce remains a huge challenge, executives from Connecticut's big defense contractors said Tuesday morning.
They were speaking at the first-ever U.S.–Australia defense summit, a two-day event hosted at the Mystic Hilton by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Anne Evans, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Office in Connecticut. This year marks the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Australia.
Courtney referred to Australia as a “key ally and partner” for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region, a “critical” area for trade and an area where China is increasing its influence. He pointed to the intelligence sharing that goes on between the two nations in the region, which is “about as valuable as any intelligence efforts in the world today,” and the “military collaboration” in Iraq and Syria.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Geurts told attendees, mainly aerospace suppliers but also shipbuilding suppliers from the U.S. and Australia, that, in talking to the industrial base, he found each company has its own unique issues but the common problem is finding enough skilled employees.
"We have a real crisis in our aerospace industry, maritime industry as well, attracting and retaining talent. If we don't fix that problem, there's nothing we can do in terms of budget or process kind of fixing," he said.
"Just on the shipbuilding side in the U.S., if you look at numbers we've got to grow, its staggering," he added.
The issue should be taken on collectively by those in the room Tuesday, Geurts said, because it's not a problem that will be solved by government.
He referred to a "two-year window" to get up to speed to ensure a more rapid delivery of equipment to the fleet in order to meet the priorities in the national defense strategy unveiled by the Trump administration at the start of this year.
Executives from Electric Boat, Sikorsky, Northrop Grumman and Pratt & Whitney all pointed to growth that hasn't been seen in decades but cautioned that without an adequate workforce and supply chain, that growth could be hindered.
Blair Decker, vice president of materials and quality at EB, said the supply chain is "the gas that runs the engine."
When the company was building earlier versions of ballistic missile and attack submarines from the 1970s to 1990s, it had about 17,000 suppliers. When it went into a low rate of production after the Cold War, its supplier base dwindled to 3,000.
"From a supply chain perspective, it's much harder to grow than it ever was to shrink," Decker said, noting that Geurts has visited EB several times since starting the job to talk about this challenge.
EB is building two attack submarines a year, and soon will start to build 12 new ballistic missile submarines, which involve about two-and-a-half times the work of an attack submarine.
"The opportunity is huge," Decker said.
However, he pointed to a vulnerability in the supply chain, and the need for the company to grow and diversify its suppliers. For attack submarines, about 75 percent of EB's suppliers are either single or sole source, meaning they are the only company EB uses for a certain product or the only company that manufactures a certain product.
"If one of those critical suppliers has an issue or a problem in a product that can take sometimes 16 to 66 months to build, that can be a true disruption to the process," he said.
EB also faces a challenge in growing its workforce, particularly mid-level career professionals.
"There's a big valley in the middle of folks that we didn't hire for almost 15 years," he said. "What that means is we're turning workers into supervisors after 2 years of experience instead of 10 years of experience."
The company has about 17,000 employees, 11,800 of whom work in Connecticut.
Vinesh Karan, commercial director at A.W.Bell Pty Ltd., an Australian-based company that manufactures aluminum castings for the aerospace industry, said North America is a "key market" for the company and that he sees a lot of opportunity in Connecticut, home to Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney.
While Karan said an obvious aim for attending the summit was to improve the company's business in the U.S. and sell more products here, the opportunities to collaborate with U.S. aerospace manufacturers "to learn how we can react quicker and work quicker," and to learn about the technologies being incorporated by these companies also was a big draw.