Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Innovation Lab Brings Technology To Next Generation Of Shipbuilders

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NEWPORT NEWS—HHI’s Newport News Shipbuilding division is harnessing the power of technology to recruit and train the next generation of shipbuilders. Its Innovation Lab has been in service since 2021 and is part of the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School.

The mobile lab includes stations that cover the various skill sets associated with all 19 trades offered by the Apprentice School. Utilizing augmented and virtual reality, the lab is used both as part of the orientation process for new apprentices and affords students from K-12 schools the opportunity to explore shipbuilding trades in a safe and controlled environment.

“During the pandemic, we realized there were a lot of K-12 students who were working from home, but they were not getting a technical education experience,” said Dr. Latitia McCane, director of education at Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School. “We had started a pre-apprenticeship program for high school students, and we were in a situation where we couldn’t bring those students to our campus for training.”

The Apprentice X Dual-Enrollment Pre-Apprenticeship Program is for tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade students, and gives high school students the opportunity to participate in The Apprentice Schools’ World Class Shipbuilder Curriculum (WCSC). The program not only provides students with a competitive edge when applying to The Apprentice School, it also offers school credit. The idea is to create a potential pipeline for students to high-paying, high-demand maritime careers with Newport News Shipbuilding.

“The way the program is structured, students would come to our campus once a week and we would have training around our 19 trades and eight optional programs,” said McCane. “During covid, we had a couple of barriers. One, we were trying to engage with students but didn’t have the proper technology to do so. Two, we wanted our pre-apprentice students to be able to make informed decisions about what trade they wanted to be a part of. We were hearing, ‘I just want to be a welder,’ because welding was the only thing they knew about. What about our other 18 trades, which are very important to shipbuilding?”

McCane went to her boss and pitched the idea of setting up the Innovation Lab.

“We needed augmented and virtual reality because it’s what this generation of students knows,” said McCane. “They are gamers. We needed to demonstrate to them how cool it could be to be in shipbuilding. The Innovation Lab has been a game-changer. When high school students visit us now, it’s not just showing them a classroom. It’s actually allowing them to put their hands on the equipment and technology so they can get a great grasp and understanding of what they will actually be doing if they are hired here in the shipyard.”

The lab was made mobile intentionally, so the training technology could go to students in rural areas or urban areas where schools didn’t have the technology or the money to purchase equipment. It can also be used to go to school-sponsored Career Days or other public events to expose students and parents to the possibilities of careers with the shipyard.

“We are more than happy to share this technology within this region,” said McCane. “That’s the whole goal. It’s not just for The Apprentice School or the pre-apprenticeship program. The unique experience helps break down preconceived ideas about the construction trades. We don’t just build ships here, we build careers.”

In addition to being a great recruiting tool, the Innovation Lab is a great training tool for students that are currently in The Apprentice School program.

“During orientation, we spend half a day in the Innovation Lab,” said McCane. “Our apprentices rotate in the trades they are not going to be working in, to get a better understanding of how all the trades work together. So, if someone is interested in welding, we’ll take them through pipefitting or something that is closely related, so they get an opportunity and understanding of what it’s all about. Also, if a student is struggling, we can use the Innovation Lab to bring them up in a controlled environment to help them understand their trade better.”

Eventually, the goal is to also put training equipment in galleries within the shipyard.

“That’s going to be our next step,” said McCane. “We’re going to move this Innovation Lab and we’re going to innovate all of our galleries within the shipyard. We want the best technology in all of those spaces. It started here in the school, but we’re thinking big picture on how we get the technology into more places.”

McCane also said they are currently communicating with the Virginia Manufacturing Association (VMA) about a potential collaboration.

“They are going to be putting a facility in Richmond, I think, and we’re in conversations with them about how we can use some of our technology at that facility,” McCane said. “The more we can get this technology in spaces and places where young people are, the more they’re going to know about what shipbuilding is all about. And that will help us build our workforce for years to come.”

On February 17, the Innovation Lab was dedicated in honor of Ray Bagley, retired vice president of trades operations at NNS. Bagley retired in 2018 after serving the company for more than 43 years. He started his career as an apprentice painter and went on to work at all levels of production and construction at the shipyard.

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