Vo-tech students tour Norfolk shipyards

Published 3:17 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Fifty welding and electrical students from Buckingham County High School’s Career and Technical Education Center (CTE) visited three Norfolk shipyards on Nov. 30, witnessing firsthand the jobs and careers that could be obtained from their coursework.

In addition to visiting Colonna’s Shipyard, Inc., Technico Corp. and BAE Systems, the students also toured the USS Bataan, an 844-foot-long assault ship first deployed in 2000.

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The three shipyards are all in close proximity to Naval Station Norfolk, one of the largest military facilities in the world.

“We sponsored it, but the ones that paid for the trip was the Virginia Ship Repair Foundation,” said Andy Schmitt, a CTE agriculture and welding teacher.

The foundation is the educational arm of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, a regional trade association representing companies engaged in or supporting the ship repair industry in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region, according to its website.

As part of the tour at the Colonna’s shipyard, students got to see the Staten Island Ferry while resting on a drydock. Students toured two other shipyards.

As part of the tour at the Colonna’s shipyard, students got to see the Staten Island Ferry while resting on a drydock. Students toured two other shipyards.

“The purpose of the trip was to give the kids the opportunity to see [the industry] first-hand … I keep talking about shipyards and some opportunities they can get careers and show them that exists,” Schmitt said. “Like [Division Superintendent] Dr. [Cecil] Snead said, they get down there, they get their feet dirty and they see there’s jobs down there.”

By talking to shipyard employees and leaders and seeing work performed on vessels, including the Staten Island Ferry, CTE students were able to learn about careers in the ship repair industry and the roles that tradesmen play in maintaining the naval and commercial fleets in the Port of Norfolk.

“During these times of downsizing and reduction,” said Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, “it is vital to remain focused on the critical issues still facing our industrial base and workforce. The average ship repairer in Hampton Roads is over 55 years old, and as we see more skilled tradesmen retire, we will need plenty of dedicated, talented and energized workers fill the voids they leave behind.”

According to the association, the ship repair industry in Hampton Roads contributes over $5 billion annually in direct economic impact, over $1.5 billion in annual employee earnings and benefits and provides over 40,000 jobs for the local economy.

“Right now, they are short in the country about 55,000 [workers],” Schmitt said of the shipyard workforce. “Up here in Buckingham there’s only two things people really think about when they get out of school: agriculture or logging. Those are the biggest employers,” he said.

Next to agriculture, shipbuilding and repair is the second-largest employer in the state, Schmitt said.

“Really, I thought only BAE had an apprentice school, but actually … they all have apprentice schools,” said Cole Dispanet, a senior at Buckingham who’s taken numerous welding courses at the CTE center. “What I really liked about it was I got to learn about all the apprentice schools. I really liked Technico the best because it was small … The pay is not like anything up here. It’s really good.”

Dispanet said because of the trip, he now has a much greater interest in shipbuilding, and wants to apply to Technico’s apprentice school.

Eleventh-grader Fletcher Bowles — who’s currently enrolled in his first welding class — said the trip has an impact on him as well.

“It was a lot different than I thought it would be. I thought it was going to be different, but it was better in a good way. We got to see a lot of stuff,” he said.

Bowles said the visit “gave me more to think about if I wanted to do something like that, because I already thought about it before. Yeah, it’s definitely something I might want to do.”

Welding student Cameron Scruggs said the visit to the shipyards sparked “a couple light bulbs by doing something like that” for him.

“I think it opened some students’ eyes up to possibilities out there,” said CTE Principal Kyle Bryan. “Some of these kids don’t always get out of Buckingham and see what they can do away from here. Probably the shipyard is something that can 90 percent of them would never even think about unless somebody takes them there to see it.”

Bryan said the field trip was a good step for the CTE center’s programming.

“We had a student that paved the way for us last year that left here from the welding program and is working as an apprentice down there,” he said of graduate Kristen Gough.

“They were so impressed with our programs that they offered to charter a bus and bring a bus load down there,” Bryan said.

Students and teachers left Buckingham at about 5 a.m. and returned at about 9 p.m., Schmitt said.