OK Boomer: what today’s young shipyard workers want

A bus at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

A bus at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

Chicken sandwiches and WiFi for starters, says the head of HII's Ingalls Shipbuilding segment.

In the battle to woo skilled employees, tech companies have long offered unusual perks: foosball tables, free food, yoga classes, and more recently, the option to work remotely. But what does the Gen-Z shipyard worker want?

Well, chicken sandwiches and wireless internet access, to start. That’s according to Ingalls Shipbuilding President Kari Wilkinson whose 11,500 workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi, build U.S. Navy destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and amphibious transport docks.

“There are different expectations in the workforce in what a workplace should offer,” Wilkinson said at the Surface Navy Association national symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

Despite having thousands of workers, Ingalls’ secure complex long lacked even a cafeteria to provide meal options beyond a brown bag or lunch bucket. So the shipyard recently opened a Chick-fil-A.

In fact, Chick-fil-A had to remove the location from its mobile app because nearby residents were placing orders — the closest Chick-Fil-A is in Diberville, Mississippi, some 20-plus miles away. 

The Chick-fil-A at Ingalls has WiFi and seating for workers to congregate — plus they can order ahead on the app to avoid the line.

“It's a hundred little things like that that we want to do to tell people that they're important and attract them and keep them,” Wilkinson said.

Ingalls Shipbuilding now refers to its 800-acre shipyard along the Pascagoula River as a “campus,” something you might hear from a big tech firm. Ingalls parent HII has spent roughly a billion dollars to upgrade the yard to win Navy contracts down the road.

Ingalls, like the other large American shipyards, finds itself in transition as Baby Boomers with decades of experience retire. 

“They're the ones that have had the experience built up over time…that knowledge base,” Wilkinson said. 

The newer crop of shipbuilders “were born with cell phones, they were born with all the technology that we take for granted today,” she said.

Unlike the Boomers who had to learn how to use new digital technology in the middle of their careers, the Gen-Z applicant comes with those skills. 

But they still have to learn how to build ships. Ingalls is on track to have 800 students in its apprentice school, Wilkinson said. 

The Biden administration has been urging companies to expand apprentice schools as the U.S. looks to train more working for future jobs. 

“People are coming with different basic skill sets, different interests, different expectations,” Wilkinson said. “It's a completely new generation.”

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