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Why American Manufacturing Still Matters

March 4, 2014
"A manufacturing base that isn't driven by excellence and value is worthless." -Mike Petters, president and CEO, Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Every afternoon at 2 p.m., Jason Ayers leaves his home in Hampton, VA, and drives to his job as a machinist on the second shift at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), as he has done for the past three years.

In a world where people change careers seemingly in a heartbeat, Jason is the fourth generation of his family to work for NNS, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries (IW 500/157).

His father, William C. Ayers, still works at NNS in the same department as his son, but on first shift.

Jason's grandfather, R. D. Ayers, was a shipfitter for 36 years and his great-grandfather, Thomas, was a welding foreman for 33 years.

Remarkably, a member of Jason's family has gone to work every day for 118 years to build the world's most capable and highest quality warships.

And for 118 years, a member of the Ayers family has worked for a shipbuilder that is currently building – among other ships and submarines – the first in a new class of aircraft carriers, Gerald R Ford (CVN 78), which will require some eight years and millions of man-hours to build.

More than 37,000 Huntington Ingalls Industries employees in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and California design, build and maintain ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

The Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier requires eight years and millions of man-hours to build, pulling in contributions from more than 2,000 small, mid-sized and large businesses located in 46 states.

Working through blistering hot summer days and bone chilling winter nights, they take mountains of steel, endless acres of pipes, miles of electrical cables and a world of other parts and use them to build and maintain the most modern and powerful peacekeeping force on the world's seas. The task demands a wide range of industrial skills – from welders and pipe-fitters to nuclear engineers.

Today our industrial sector has shrunk so dramatically that many people no longer believe it matters whether the United States has a manufacturing base. But our foreign policy challenges are more complicated than ever, making it just as important for our country to have both the skill set and the means to build ships and planes and other complex products today as it was during the Cold War.

That's why we cannot be only a nation of ideas and services. We cannot depend on others to make the critical tools and machines we need to grow our economy and maintain our security.

What we make here in the United States still matters. What we do now to preserve a highly skilled, competitive manufacturing base is critical to a secure future.

A Vital, Industrial Nation

To build Ford, we depend on more than 2,000 small, mid-sized and large businesses from 46 states to provide a wide variety of parts and services. This network of suppliers is vitally important to the nation's security, yet it is incredibly fragile.

This is not the sort of supply chain that can be stopped and started with ease. The skills and resources needed to produce something as complex and sophisticated as an aircraft carrier or submarine take decades to develop.

We need to maintain the ability to attract talent, technology and capital to manufacturing.

If we start to wind down or freeze production, the first thing that happens is that skills degenerate. Then talent begins to migrate to sectors that are expanding. Capital follows and suppliers begin to fold or move to other types of work. Once started, the decline is extremely hard to stop – much less reverse.

To be clear, our company and our employees must remain highly competitive. We have to work every day to improve quality and enhance efficiency. A manufacturing base that isn't driven by excellence and value is worthless. At the same time, we must appreciate the unique asset we have in the shipbuilding skills in the United States.

My great hope is that 50-plus years from now, when USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is being decommissioned, a future Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO can continue to take pride in the great work force and supply chain that will be building the ships for America's fourth century. And I hope a member of Jason Ayers' family is still on the job at NNS.

Mike Petters is the president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

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