Opinion: Shipyard layoffs reminder that Hampton Roads must diversify its economy

As area shipbuilders announce layoffs, importance of economic diversity is made clearer

Newport News Shipbuilding announced in July that the conclusion of several major construction projects would necessitate a reduction in workforce of more than 1,500, or about 7 percent of the company's employment.

But even knowing that was coming did little to soften the impact when the first 480 layoffs occurred last week. The affected workers span "the whole gamut of the shipyard," according to NNS President Matt Mulherin.

Though 77 workers with trade experience have been offered hourly positions, the other affected workers have been dealt a serious setback. They may stay afloat for a little while, paying some bills and pushing off others, but many have a specialized skill set that limits their employment options.

Additional injury followed this week with the news that BAE Systems in Norfolk plans to terminate 650 workers at its Norfolk shipyard as well. The company, which maintains and repairs Navy destroyers, cruisers and amphibious warships, has seen a reduced demand for its services.

Hampton Roads is fortunate to have other shipbuilders and heavy industry, and that the workforce tends to move between companies based on federal contracts and the work needed to be done. There is some comfort in that.

According to industry sources, about 30,000 jobs in Hampton Roads are tied directly to shipbuilding. But that means thousands of families rely on this one area of the federal defense budget for their livelihood.

If the industry is in a "workload valley," as Mr. Mulherin describes the shipbuilding landscape, then communities like Newport News, Norfolk and others throughout the region have a real problem. Their approach to previous lulls in the workload may not be adequate now.

That will mean funding for job training and employment placement should be at a premium. Communities must be poised to help these talented folks find work as quickly as possible.

And it is also serves as a stern reminder that the region must redouble its efforts to develop greater diversity in the economy, which requires an active business community and determined local development groups.

Such efforts are also served by local economic development officers and politicians, who can help cultivate conditions friendly to growth through smart investment in infrastructure needs and education. Voters should keep that in mind as they listen to candidates in local and state races asking for support.

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