Huntington Ingalls CEO Mike Petters is in the military shipbuilding business, where a single product takes eight years to build and has a shelf life for a half century. So it’s not a great leap to say he takes the long view.

Last week, Petters announced he would donate all but $1 of his annual base salary, in the ballpark of $950,000, to workforce training, including scholarships for children of employees. It builds on a legacy of workforce development at Huntington Ingalls, which invests in STEM education, partners with community colleges and technical schools, offers summer internships for students and teachers, and has apprentice schools at its two shipyards. 

Petters, who grew up in a large family on a Florida orange and cattle farm, himself got a boost in his youth from scholarships to a Jesuit high school and later, to the U.S. Naval Academy.

He talked to IndustryWeek about why he made the salary decision, as well as the value he places on strong early childhood education (which he’s called a matter of national security) and the importance of leadership training in apprenticeship programs.

What prompted you to donate your salary to workforce education, and why now?

The people that we work with here, they’re some of the greatest folks that you’ll ever get a chance to meet. And they work hard.

They not only put their heart and soul into the work that they do on behalf of the company, but they put their heart and soul into the communities where they live. They run the little league teams on the weekends, they usher in the churches on the weekends. They are the backbone of where we live. And my personal view is that being able to help them do and accomplish the things that they want to accomplish for their families is something that is in all of our interests.

It’s a chance to give people the chance to create a little bit different future for themselves. Somebody did that for me; I’m lucky enough to have the chance to do it for others.

Your path changed when you were in eighth grade and earned a scholarship to a private high school.

My parents believed that education was the way you set your path for yourself. We didn’t have any money, but we raised our own vegetables; we raised our own beef; my grandparents ran a dairy. We made do with the work that we did.

I had the opportunity to go to a Jesuit high school in Tampa, about 30 miles away. I took a test and got accepted. Couldn’t afford it, so I basically worked my tuition off while I was in high school, traveling back and forth every day to go to class. I put a lot into that education, and I got a lot out of it.

But everybody’s got a story. There are a lot of stories a lot harder than mine.

One of the great things about America is that the American Dream is something we have generally believed in. That if you work hard and take advantage of opportunities in front of you, you can move yourself to a different trajectory than what you were born into.

I think that we have people in this country today who are starting to question whether that’s really true.

I think it’s very important that it still be true. It’s up to those of us who have actually gone down that path—and had the chance to be successful and had the opportunity and the means—to make sure that we lean back and keep the American Dream alive. We can talk about it all we want to, but actions speak louder than words.