General Dynamics Electric Boat is taking steps to address vendor base and workforce concerns as the company works to keep the Columbia-class submarine, the Navy’s top acquisition priority, on track, General Dynamics Electric Boat President Kevin Graney told Inside Defense in a Wednesday interview.
Graney identified workforce staffing as Electric Boat’s biggest challenge as Columbia construction hits the one-year mark.
The Navy awarded Electric Boat a $9.47 billion contract modification in November 2020 to begin full construction of the first Columbia-class submarine.
The first Columbia-class submarine is 13.5% complete a year into construction, which is well ahead of the pace set by the lead Virginia-class submarine, Graney said.
“We’re fully a year, maybe 13 or 14 months ahead of where Virginia lead-ship was after one year in construction,” he said. “We’ve got a great leg up on it.”
The pandemic has caused staffing challenges for Electric Boat, Graney said. Prior to the pandemic, the company had no problem finding and training workers with a tested and proven training pipeline, Graney said.
“Post-Covid, it’s a different environment,” he said. “We still have a great training pipeline, but the difficulty is finding people. So, we’re doing a lot of reinventing of what it takes to recruit, hire and retain people to fill the classrooms today.”
The company is broadening its recruitment efforts through television advertising and events, Graney said.
The newness of the workforce is presenting some construction challenges, Graney said.
“We're hiring people as fast as we possibly can,” he said. “They are new to the business, so there's an awful lot that they're just gaining proficiency on.”
Electric Boat is working with its training pipeline of schools, including the New England Institute of Technology, on adjusting curriculum to better fit the company’s needs as Columbia construction picks up, Graney said.
Workforce will be Electric Boat’s biggest challenge in the next year, Graney said. But it will be the Virginia-class program, not Columbia, that will experience any negative consequences that this issue has on operations.
“We're going to keep Columbia manned the way we need to keep it manned, there's no question about that,” he said. “But if we're short on resources, they're going to come on the back of the Virginia program.”
Graney said he believes moving resources from Virginia-class work to Columbia-class work is “inevitable” in a “labor shortage environment.”
Graney said he is also concerned about a low availability of welders with an increase in government infrastructure projects with the passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill earlier this week.
Under its contract with the Navy, Electric Boat has an 84-month build window to deliver the ship. The company is working on a 78-month build schedule to add some cushion in the case of delays, Graney said.
Delays to missile tubes earlier on in the process has put the company a few months behind the 78 month schedule, Graney said, but still comfortably in line to meet the 84 month schedule with some time to spare.
“We're going to work to nimble that away in the coming year here, and I expect that we will be close or are on track by the end of 2022,” he said.
While the company has moved past the problem with volumetric welding missile tubes at some of their suppliers, Graney called the issue a cautionary tale about the supply chain.
“I do think missile tubes are kind of a cautionary tale for our supply chain, and how brittle it can be if we’re not staying vigilant and making sure we're going the extra mile to get our vendor base squared away,” he said. “And I think we've seen tremendous improvement in the vendor base.”
Electric Boat is continuously working to expand the vendor base and has grown it from 3,000 vendors four years ago to closer to 5,000 now, Graney said.
“We want more people to be supplying this product, so we're not so beholden to single or sole source vendors,” he said. “They're going to have their own workforce issues that they're going to have to come through, developing people, developing the efficiency, and really getting the industrial base cooking and humming in the country to support construction.”
The industrial base has done a great job adjusting to the pandemic, Graney said.
“Because of the way they've persevered through that, we haven't seen these major disruptions where the program has been set back by six months or 12 months,” he said. “There are small delays all over the place, as opposed to big delays in certain areas.”
Electric Boat has identified 350 critical suppliers and has conducted assessments using a stoplight evaluation method. Graney said last year’s evaluation found that between 20 and 25 suppliers were in the yellow or red category, with yellow meaning they were functional now but needed to expand and red signifying the supplier was having difficulty.
The company is undergoing its fifth annual assessment of its supply base, Graney said.
“What I expect to see is that coming out of COVID, things have stabilized a bit,” he said.
As construction continues, the company is cutting the time it takes to do some processes, Graney said. For example, the company has cut the time it takes to install a missile tube nearly in half, he said.
“That's some design changes and some planning changes, but it's also getting material lined up sooner,” he said. “And overall getting the guys more proficient because they're able to do it over and over and over again.”