BATH — Bath Iron Works is hiring hundreds of new workers this year and launching an on-site training facility as the shipyard enters a phase when crews will be working on six Navy destroyers simultaneously.

BIW officials said they expect to hire about 600 people by the end of the year, elevating the shipyard’s workforce to nearly 6,000 for the first time since 2004. The hiring spree is a response to the fact that six destroyers – representing two entirely different designs – will be at various stages of construction at the General Dynamics-owned shipyard.

“That is more (work) than we have dealt with in a long, long time,” said Edward Kenyon, manager of the DDG-51 destroyer program at BIW.

With roughly 5,450 workers, BIW is one of Maine’s largest private employers. It is also one of the Navy’s primary shipyards and has benefited from a steady stream of new Navy contracts in recent years despite the budget cuts and financial uncertainty that have gripped Washington.

“The feeling is pretty good about the backlog. However, we know we have to perform on it,” said Jay Wadleigh, president of the Local S6 chapter of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. Tight federal budgets and higher expectations will keep pressure on BIW to control costs, Wadleigh said.

BIW will be working on three DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers, which are updated variants on a destroyer class in Navy service for more than two decades, and three DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyers. The first of the “stealth” Zumwalt destroyers is pier-side at BIW, undergoing final construction before at-sea testing next year. Large sections of the second Zumwalt and the next Arleigh Burke are also under construction at the yard.

TRAINING FACILITY CREATED

Shipyard officials said they will be hiring a broad range of skilled workers, including electricians, pipe fitters, outside machinists, welders and tinsmiths, as well as electrical, structural and mechanical engineers.

Although most new workers arrive at BIW with prior experience or training in their field, shipyard officials have created a training facility to help workers tailor those skills to the shipyard’s needs. For instance, the high-voltage electrical power system in the Zumwalt destroyers operates at 4,160 volts, compared to the 110-volt systems that are standard in most residences and businesses.

The training facility, which opened on a limited basis in recent weeks, is set up like an industrial classroom with stations such as welding, pipe-bending, brazing and stud-welding. The program’s Rick Blair said new recruits will spend two to six weeks in training, depending on the trade.

In addition to the work-related expansion, the company also is bracing for a steady wave of retirements in the coming years. The average BIW tradesman has worked there for 20 years, said BIW spokesman Matt Wickenheiser.

“We expect we are going to need to continue training new workers for years to come because of that aging workforce,” Kenyon said. “It also means there will be great opportunities for people who live in the area.”

Wadleigh said BIW officials told his union that they could hire between 600 and 1,000 workers this year, depending on the rate of attrition.

BUILDING EXPANSION PLANNED

Wadleigh said his union is taking a “wait and see” approach to the new management at BIW – particularly the new president, Frederick Harris. This year, the union objected to a proposal by Harris to temporarily hire electricians from another out-of-state shipyard until their permanent replacements were trained at BIW.

But Wadleigh was pleased with the training facility.

“I’m glad we are in an up-cycle (for hiring) and I’m glad they are taking the time to put people through training,” he said.

BIW officials are also planning several facility expansion projects to complement a series of upgrades in recent years that have enabled the 58-acre shipyard on the banks of the Kennebec River to take on so many construction projects at the same time.

In fact, there is a destroyer at almost every stage of development at BIW right now.

Walking through the shipyard’s largest structure – the “panel line and assembly building” that is four football fields in length – it is possible to see the early stages of plate assembly on one end, and stare up at a partially constructed but still-massive bow of an Arleigh Burke destroyer on the other end.

WORK IMPROVEMENTS

Before 2001, BIW workers built Arleigh Burke destroyers by piecing together 31 individual units on the inclined platforms from which the ships were eventually pushed into the water during the dramatic initial launch.

Today, both the Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt destroyers are pieced together from nine enormous cross-sections of the ship – each weighing thousands of tons – that are built inside one of two towering construction facilities. The largest of the buildings, the Ultra Hall, stands more than 100 feet tall –10 stories – and last week contained the entire stern section of the second Zumwalt under construction.

Those facilities allow more of the work to be completed inside and out of the Maine weather. The sections are then joined together in the yard before the ship is moved into a dry dock and floated for the first time.

BIW recently secured funding for a fifth Arleigh Burke destroyer after Maine Sen. Susan Collins and other members of the state’s congressional delegation worked to close a sequestration-related funding shortfall.

The Navy’s long-term plans call for continued construction of Arleigh Burke destroyers, which are built at either BIW or its competitor, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. Yet there are no guarantees for defense contractors given the polarization in Washington and fiscal constraints facing the country.

BIW is also one of three shipyards competing to build the Coast Guard’s next-generation offshore patrol cutter. That contract could be valued at up to $10 billion. However, BIW faces cost competition from its two rivals in the initial design competition, as well as a legal challenge by two prominent shipyards that did not make the Coast Guard’s initial cut.

BIW officials have indicated that part of the reason they are interested in the Coast Guard project is to make the shipyard less reliant solely on Navy contracts.

“In a lot of respects, we are no different than any other business,” said BIW spokesman Jim DeMartini. “The bottom line is, in today’s world, with the economy and the uncertainty in Washington, the trick is to be agile, and that is what we are working on.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com