Hundreds are back to work at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard

At Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, Lewis Pierce, 55, of Williamstown, grinds a plate for the hull of a ship under construction. The company has also restarted an apprenticeship program that was suspended in July 2010. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
At Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, Lewis Pierce, 55, of Williamstown, grinds a plate for the hull of a ship under construction. The company has also restarted an apprenticeship program that was suspended in July 2010. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 11, 2012

A smiley face that employees painted on a new 46,000-ton ship docked on the Delaware is a sign of the times at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard.

Life is getting back to normal at the South Philadelphia shipbuilder, which just a year ago was on the brink of closing.

About 200 laid-off Aker employees have been recalled. Together with 325 other Aker workers and 300 subcontractors who had lost jobs, the workforce is now more than 800 — up from 400 a year ago. They are busy constructing two tankers and cutting steel for a third large tanker for Exxon Mobil Corp. affiliate SeaRiver Maritime Inc.

A $400 million deal inked in September to build two 115,000-ton tankers for SeaRiver set in motion the recalling of workers and the restarting of an apprenticeship program that was suspended in July 2010, when global financial trouble stalled shipbuilding and triggered more than 600 layoffs at Aker.

"We've accomplished a lot over the last 12 months," Aker CEO Kristian Rokke said. "We are continuing to progress and build on our strengths."

The nation's second-largest commercial shipbuilder has orders that will keep the yard busy through 2014 and is in discussions for future work, Rokke said.

Aker, which once employed more than 1,000 at the Navy Yard, will reach 1,000 workers again early next year, when construction begins on the second Exxon Mobil vessel, the chief executive said.

In October, Aker began recalling furloughed apprentices — shipbuilders-in-training — and will hire 40 this year. Classes began in February and May.

These men — and one woman — will spend three years learning to be welders, shipbuilders, or pipe fitters (called outfitters). They work 40 hours a week, are union members, earn $16.40 an hour, or $34,000 a year, and get benefits, a pension, and time off.

Aker began the apprentice program in 2004, when the average age of workers was 52 and the yard needed to replenish positions lost to attrition and retirements.

In the current economy, one thing has changed. The average age of apprentices used to be 27, and some were as young as 18 and 20. Now, the average age is 36 and some are in their 40s, said Mike Giantomaso, Aker vice president of human resources.

"We have seen, in this current recruitment effort, a lot of nontraditional apprentice applications, older individuals, and a fair increase in the number of college graduates," said Jim Clark, former manager of training.

Since 2004, 190 would-be shipbuilders have accepted apprentice spots. Sixty graduated and 47 are still at Aker. Some are now supervisors.

Others dropped out, took different jobs, or didn't cut it and were terminated. The current crop was culled from 1,000 applicants. To qualify, they had to score well on a test in basic math, reading comprehension, problem solving, measurement, and mechanical aptitude.

Sara Matz, 22, the only female apprentice, has been welding since she was 15 at Bucks County Technical High School in Levittown. She said she stumbled upon the shipyard program on the Internet and applied in 2009. She was accepted then, but got a follow-up letter that the program was canceled.

Matz spent the last two years managing a retail store until she got a call that the program was restarting. Although she's the only woman in her apprentice group, she said, she was not the only woman working at the shipyard. "We're just a bunch of people — it's not a gender thing."

Eric Reeves, 47, the oldest apprentice, was unemployed for 18 months. "The opportunity came, so I jumped right on it," said Reeves, who lives in Norristown. He worked previously as a maintenance mechanic and spent 12 years as a pipe fitter in shipyards in Virginia. "I got laid off from down there, too. Finally, I needed somewhere I could have longevity, so I figured this would be it."

Jason Duffy, 39, of Mayfair, took the apprentice test three years ago, "right before they stopped the program. I gave up all hope until right around the holidays, when they started calling some guys back. My name happened to be on the list. I was lucky, and very grateful to be given the opportunity."

Duffy said he had worked "multiple jobs," including as head cook at a restaurant. "It wasn't something that I could see as a long-term future. I want to retire nice. I don't want to scrimp and save and worry. I believe this opportunity will allow me to do the things I want to do."

Putting smiley faces on Aker ships began in September 2007, when workers fell behind schedule and their boss, before going away for two weeks, said the job had better be done when he returned. The employees finished and drew a smiley face to say, "We did it!" Rokke recalled.

On every ship built since then, a smiley face has been sketched — some with a bandanna or baseball cap. "They have gotten progressively bigger and brighter," Rokke said.

On the latest ship, it has special meaning. Construction began in March on the first tanker for Exxon Mobil. Steel will be cut early next year for a second ship, 820 feet long and capable of carrying 730,000 barrels of crude oil. Both tankers will transport Alaska North Slope crude from Prince William Sound to the U.S. West Coast.

Aker also is building two product tankers that do not yet have buyers. One will be completed in August, and the other early next year.

"The yard has had quite a bit of interest in those ships," said Manuel "Manny" Stamatakis, chairman of the Philadelphia Shipyard Development Corp. "If refineries here and elsewhere close, that may help sell those two ships sooner. We're going to have to get oil to the Northeast United States from Texas. Probably the most cost-effective way is by ship."

In February 2011, Aker received $42 million from Pennsylvania taxpayers to construct two oceangoing vessels, even though it had no buyers lined up. Without state money — and private construction financing that Aker secured — the yard might have ended operations.

Philadelphia Metal Trades Council president Lou Agre said "things are better." The union has two concerns: One is undoing some work-rule changes it made in the last negotiations in order to keep the shipyard open.

It also wants more local workers, and fewer from outside the region, hired full time. "Other than that, we feel Kristian Rokke is a real asset to the yard and to the workers. And we're working on a lot of things, especially concerning safety," Agre said.

"Financially, Aker is doing well right now," Stamatakis said. "People are coming back to work, and that's all we care about. And having a healthy yard down there." The next challenge is to get more ship orders. "We've got some time, but they are working hard on that."

Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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