How Danville has become a center for shipbuilding trades

By 2025 the U.S. Navy will need three new submarines built annually in order to meet its national security objectives.

But there’s a problem.

The disparity between the number of skilled workers available to build the Navy’s ships and submarines over the next decade and the number needed “is not hundreds, but thousands and thousands of people,” said the Navy’s Whitney Jones, director, Submarine Industrial Base (PEO Strategic Submarines).

In fact, she said, “We are only about 15% of the way through the first Columbia class submarine right now.”

Troy Simpson, director of advanced manufacturing at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, believes the institute can help solve the problem.

“It’s reached a point almost of a national security threat of not having enough skilled workers to support the construction to build and maintain the systems needed by the warfighter,” Simpson said in the fall, as IALR launched the Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing pilot program. It was Simpson who made contact with the military, making them aware of the programs at IALR.

“I think we, in our region, will be a part of the solution to ensure that our defense industry has the workers they need to build what our armed forces need,” he said.

Jones, who has been with the Navy for 12 years, said as the push for students to attend four-year colleges increased, the number of skilled tradespeople supporting the defense industry decreased.

Traditionally, the Navy left the work of hiring, training and retaining employees to the supply chain. In 2019 the Department of Defense changed its tack, establishing the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program and launching the National Imperative for Industrial Skills Initiative to invest in industrial workforce development. A major component of the initiative is to create relationships between the Defense Department, its industry partners and the academic community.

Since fiscal year 2019, NIIS has invested more than $80 million in workforce development and training.

The four-month Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing program is part of a pilot project in Danville to test and evaluate a training platform for the defense industrial base. It was created by the public-private consortium consisting of Danville Community College, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Phillips Corporation and The SPECTRUM Group, a consulting firm with defense industry experience, and is the Navy’s flagship effort to develop a new workforce for shipbuilding


It is one of the first projects funded in support of the National Imperative for Industrial Skills Initiative. The Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program awarded the consortium $1.78 million to establish a regional training center to establish a pipeline of skilled workers for the maritime industry. Over the three-year pilot period successful programs — Danville is home to one of several — could become regional training centers.

The Department of Defense discovered Danville in part because Danville and Danville Community College have a long tradition of graduating skilled workers. Mark Gignac, director of special projects at IALR, said the expansion of the traditional legacy machining program in Danville, from two years to  an optional third year of integrated machining technology training, attracted national attention. The new ATDM program also includes a CNC machining track, in an accelerated format, as well as tracks in welding, metrology/quality assurance and additive manufacturing.

To date, nearly $8.1 million has been awarded to IALR to fund the program.

The pilot opened with 32 students in June 2021 and the second class of 40 students began the 600-hour training program almost immediately after the first ended. During this pilot phase of the program, students pay nothing for the training or housing during the four months they are in Danville.

“The training is really geared around the shipbuilding industry, which could be more than submarines. Submarines is one piece of it,” Gignac said.

Students learn skills essential to the naval shipbuilding sector and focus on the biggest knowledge gaps: CNC machining, welding, metrology/quality assurance and additive manufacturing.

“As we continue to ensure our national security objectives are met, and that our warfighters have the platforms and systems they need to maintain free access across the maritime domain, I cannot overemphasize the significance of our defense industrial base workforce,” Rear Admiral Scott Pappano said at the IALR’s inaugural Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing Summit in Danville in August. “We have to demand the same levels of scale and urgency across our shipbuilding and ship sustainment trades as we do our Naval capability, capacity and readiness. … That is exactly what this program is designed to achieve.”

According to Danville Community College, participants can earn numerous nationally recognized credentials in about a quarter of the time it takes a student in a traditional college program to do the same. Traditional college students get about 90 minutes of instruction twice a week while ATDM students get a solid eight hours a day, five days a week. New students, veterans and incumbent workers have been accepted.

The curriculum for the program was custom designed by subject matter experts in the fields of CNC machining, welding, metrology and additive manufacturing. It ensures students learn specifically what is needed by the defense industry and is more hands-on than a traditional college course. ATDM students can move into — and succeed in — the workforce in months instead of years.


Twenty-one-year-old La’akea Naeole is thrilled with the experience he’s had in Danville so far. Naeole, who came from Hawaii to attend, got to see snow for the first time and said his instructors are incredibly knowledgeable and care about the program.

Naeole said he tried traditional college but sitting and listening to hours of instruction didn’t work for him. Working with his hands does, though, and is what made the program so appealing to the former construction worker.

“I just couldn’t turn down the offer,” said Naeole, who learned about the program from a neighbor.

Fourteen of the 72 students in the first two ATDM classes are considered locals to IALR, having come from Danville, South Boston, Sutherlin, Ringgold, Blairs and Pelham, and Yanceyville, North Carolina.

After participating in the first cohort, Mechanical Group production inside machine shop manager Justin Hayden told Jason Scarborough, a public affairs specialist at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard: “The CNC training provided through the ATDM program in Danville, Va., proved to be very beneficial to our machinists. … This accelerated ATDM program provides a boost to the development and will help to bring machinists up to speed much faster. We have struggled to maintain enough proficient CNC machinists based on attrition, so this program has the potential to bridge that gap and allow us to increase our numbers at a faster rate.”

In testimony before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense chaired by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, in October 2021, Xavier Beale, vice president-operations at the Newport News Shipbuilding House, pointed specifically to the ATDM program in Danville as a possible solution to the workforce shortage.

And, at the request of the military, Danville intends to ramp the training up at breakneck speed.

“We want to graduate 1,000 annually in the long term,” Gignac said.

“It’s a big issue because what’s going on in the world [is] we can’t build ships and submarines fast enough, and until we plug this hole of training workers, it’s a big issue and the words being used are that it’s a national imperative. It’s that important for our future security. … The training that we’re doing addresses a part of that.”

For Jones, it’s no surprise that the Navy is looking to Danville — more than 200 miles from the nearest port — for the answer to its workforce shortage.

The workforce is “one of those things that no single organization or program wants to take on. It’s huge. It’s fluffy. It’s ambiguous. It involves an insane number of stakeholders, and so no one’s wanted to own that. Danville has stepped up and said that they are going to focus on manufacturing as a core competency and as an economic development model,” she said.

“What we need to do is have sustained workforce pipelines, because we’re headed to a place where we’re going to need more workforce members than we have historically had since the Cold War,” she said. “Danville has been a tremendous partner in all of this and we are seeing measurable gains in having our small and medium suppliers find workforce and trade skills that they need.

“What makes Danville unique is you’ve got an entire region that’s kind of gotten ‘all in’ on [the] Navy and defense workforce.”

Article by Amy Trent | Cardinal News