Building a Demand-Driven Talent Pipeline from the Very Beginning

Mike Petters Addresses the Virginia Workforce Conference (remarks as delivered)
HII Corporate Workforce Development

Thank you, Barry [Duval]. Secretary [Maurice] Jones, elected officials, leaders in education and workforce development, ladies and gentlemen—good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here this morning.

Fred Rogers—who many of us know as Mister Rogers—once said: “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

So what does Mister Rogers have to do with workforce development?

A lot, actually.

I’d guess that when most us think about the "talent pipeline," we think about the end of it: what we from business and industry are getting out of it. My challenge to you this morning is to think about the beginning of the pipeline and what we’re putting into it.

It’s easy for me to talk about all the workforce development efforts at Huntington Ingalls Industries—both here in Virginia at Newport News Shipbuilding and at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi.

  • We invest in STEM education in K-12 schools.
  • We partner with community colleges and technical high schools to develop trades-based curriculum.
  • We have industry-leading apprentice schools at both shipyards—and both were built through successful public-private investment.
  • We host summer internships—not only for college students, but for STEM educators, so they can take their hands-on experience back to their classrooms.
  • And we have more than 30 senior leaders actively engaged in national, state and local organizations focused on workforce development.

Many of you have probably heard about much of this already—if not from me, then from Bill Ermatinger, our chief human resources officer, who was chairman of the Chamber’s board during the development of “Blueprint Virginia.” So yes, we invest—a lot—in workforce development. And you probably think that makes sense because we are the largest manufacturing employer in Virginia and the largest employer in Mississippi. And because we build great products that are complex and labor-intensive at the same time. That is all true.

But what I really want to talk about this morning is why—as the CEO of a Fortune 400 company that builds military warships—I strongly believe we must do more to invest in the beginning of the workforce development pipeline.

Two words: national security.

You heard that correctly.

I believe early childhood education in America is a national security issue. And one we, as Americans, need to be concerned with.

So let’s talk about why. The ships we build at HII are statements of national purpose. When an aircraft carrier sails the globe protecting us and our nation’s interests, it is a 100,000-ton symbol of America’s industrial strength, competitive edge and economic prosperity. It takes a highly trained, educated and dedicated group of men and women to voluntarily sail these ships into harm’s way. It takes a strong and economically robust country—with suppliers in nearly every state—to provide parts and services for these capital ships. And finally, it takes a talented and educated workforce to build them.

These ships are a reflection of what makes America globally competitive. They may be the only things others around the world will ever see that demonstrate “Built in America.” Part of what enables us to build these ships and have them crewed by our nation’s finest is the investment we make in education. So for us to keep our economy strong and to remain competitive on this global stage, we must invest in education at the very beginning.

In 2013, a group called Mission Readiness published a report entitled, “A Commitment to Pre-Kindergarten is a Commitment to National Security.” Comprising 350 retired admirals and generals, Mission Readiness operates under the non-profit group Council for a Strong America. In their report, they attested that “investing in high-quality early childhood education, from birth to kindergarten entry, is essential for the future strength of our military and our nation.” I fear that we are already falling behind.

The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reports that investment in education in the U.S. is relatively high—fifth among OECD countries—yet enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year-olds continue to be considerably lower than average. Specifically: Only 38 percent of 3-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in early education programs. The OECD average is 64 percent. Likewise, only 66 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in early education programs. The OECD average is 84 percent for 4-year-olds. In fact, compared to most of the world’s leading economies, the U.S. is ranked in the bottom third for enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds. How does that translate? The rest of the world is starting to educate its children before the U.S. And much of the rest of the world is educating its children better than the U.S. Because even though the U.S. is fifth in investment in education, overall America is tied with Italy in the 28th position for OECD global rankings for overall education quality.

Fortunately, my role with HII has given me some opportunities to help make a very positive difference. I mentioned “Blueprint Virginia,” and Barry has mentioned “Blueprint Virginia.” I was proud to be a member of the Steering Committee for that initiative, which identified five goals related to early childhood education:

  • To improve access to high-quality early childhood education—a key determinant of both school readiness and third-grade reading attainment.
  • To address the fragmentation and gaps that exist in our current public policy approach to early learning.
  • To improve the flexibility of existing state funding for at-risk preschoolers to allow it to be more fully used at the local level.
  • To identify opportunities for public/private partnerships to promote community-wide access to high-quality early learning.
  • And to implement appropriate models from the private sector, such as pay for performance, in publicly funded child care and early learning.

A news clip featured on the “Blueprint” website perfectly sums up the intent of the plan. The Free Lance-Star reported in May that one in seven children in the Fredericksburg area begins kindergarten without the basic skills to succeed in school. The story noted that the state spends $78 million a year on students who must repeat a year between kindergarten and the third grade because they weren’t ready for school. Paul Koonce, the chairman of Blueprint Virginia, told the newspaper: “We know that investing in the preschool years has a payoff that keeps on giving for decades. Students who have greater success in school do better in life. The cost of not making the investment is staggering. If we invest early, we have a better chance of turning this around.” That’s well said, Paul.

I also had the honor of participating in work done by the Hamilton Project, a D.C.-based organization seeking to advance America’s promise of opportunity, prosperity and growth. Here’s one highlight from a Hamilton paper on expanding preschool access: “Poverty has little association with the cognitive abilities of 9-month-old children. By the start of kindergarten, however, not only do poor children perform significantly worse on tests of cognitive ability than children from higher-income families, but teachers also report that these children have much more difficulty paying attention and exhibit more behavioral problems. The poverty gap in school readiness appears to be growing as income inequality widens.”

Indeed, this is where the discussion shifts from strictly educational issues to socioeconomic ones—like cost and accessibility. When you consider the cost of child care and early education versus the median income in Virginia, I think we can agree the barriers are high for a family with two working parents and one child. What if you add one … or two … or three more children? What if one of those parents doesn’t work? Or what if it’s a single parent—which, according to 2013 data from the organization Kids Count—was the case for 32 percent of the families in Virginia … and what if they’re living in poverty, which Kids Count reports is the case for 12 percent of the families in Virginia?

The fact that some kids go to pre-K because their families can afford it and other kids don’t go because their families cannot … creates a rift between “the haves” and “the have-nots” before formal public education even begins. We see the consequences down the line, and that’s a shrinking pool of applicants years before most workforce development efforts begin.

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference being addressed by the Secretary of the Navy. He asked us to consider the U.S. population between the ages of 18 and 25. Now remove from that group those with criminal records, those with physical fitness issues and those without high school diplomas, and you’re left with about 25 percent of that population. That is who the Navy is trying to recruit. As I sat there, I thought: Me too.

One in four is a staggering indictment. Now take that to a fifth-grade classroom. One in four students in that classroom will ultimately be employable. The other three will face challenges that we all will pay for. Pre-K schooling is our chance to change the future for those three students. Pre-K schooling can help boost the chances of those three children to succeed because they start to learn earlier.

Depending on your age, you may not have gone to pre-K or even kindergarten—I didn’t start school until first grade myself—so it’s really hard to convince some people of the value. For most of us who didn’t go, it’s because we didn’t have to. It was 50 years ago. The work environment was a different place and, indeed, education was different then than it is today. Today, it’s less about local competition and more about global competition. We know the world is starting earlier. To stay competitive, so should we.

As an analogy, consider the evolution of school sports. Back in the day, many of us in this room tried out for high school sports. And we probably had a reasonably good shot at making the team if we could play the game. Today, if you want to play high school sports, you have to begin training for it in elementary school. You have to be on a club or a travel team which did not exist ‘back in the day.” You have to build those muscles—and your love of the game—year-round, and you have to be faster or bigger or better than the majority of your peers to just have a chance to make the team. It’s the same with education.

To have a shot at success in a globally competitive marketplace, you have to begin building those brain muscles and embrace the love of learning— that love of the game—before kindergarten. The bottom line is that in today’s economy—in today’s society—pre-K is critical to the U.S. being able to deliver the product of a globally competitive education.

So what needs to change? And what can we as leaders in our respective industries—as people deeply committed to education and workforce development—do? Well, I can tell you one thing we don’t have to do, and that’s reinvent the wheel. We can find lots of examples of what’s working.

Just one month ago—when the new school year began—65,000 4-year-olds in New York City began attending pre-K. Mayor Bill de Blasio told The New York Times: “This is where the modern world is taking us. … If we can do this for 65,000 kids, with all the challenges that New York City has with our rich demographic mix, English-language learners and kids with special needs, I believe you can do it anywhere.”

Here in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe formed the first-ever Children’s Cabinet, as well as the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success, and asked them to take a 360-degree approach to increasing economic opportunity for Virginia students—starting before birth. The governor also announced last year that Virginia has been awarded a $17.5 million U.S. Department of Education Preschool Expansion Grant that will allow the Commonwealth to serve as many as 1,600 additional at-risk 4-year-olds in new, high-quality preschool classes. He knows that if we are going to lead in a global economy, we can’t wait until our students reach kindergarten to begin preparing them for success.

But we can’t rely on government to solve the problem on its own. This is not a social problem. This is an economic problem, and framing it this way should bring us together to work toward solutions. To my colleagues in the business community: We can—and should—take a leadership role. We should work with government and education to do so.

I’ll use HII as an example. Leadership is critical. We are proud that Bill Ermatinger serves on the Council on Childhood Success and also on the board of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation. We have Chavis Harris at Newport News Shipbuilding, who serves on the board for CHIP of Virginia, a network responsible for increasing access to health care for thousands of Virginia’s low-income children and their families. At our Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Mississippi, Debbie McLendon serves as chair of the Excel by 5 Coalition, which develops and implements programs that focus on early childhood education, family support, community development and health and safety.

In addition to our talent resources, we provide financial support to those organizations. In Newport News, we contribute every year to Smart Beginnings of the Peninsula, an initiative that creates community commitment to the school readiness of young children. We also support the Downtown Hampton Child Development Center, one of the highest-rated child care facilities in the state and an integral part of our community.

Granted, for businesses to invest in pre-school education, we have to be willing to be patient about any specific return on investment. We have to really be making the investment for the “greater good,” so to speak. That being said, there is a solid case for the investment. Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, cites various analyses that show annual rates of return, adjusted for inflation, ranging from 7 percent to just over 20 percent. With returns like that, what’s not to like?

Bottom line: Whether you represent government, business, schools, parents, child care providers, higher education, faith communities—you all drive the effort to lay the groundwork for school success and a more prosperous community.

Today, my primary call to action is really targeted to my colleagues in the business community. If you lead a business, ask yourself: Will I be able to recruit, hire and retain the people I need to be successful next year? What about five years from now? Ten? Twenty?

I am asking you to please step up and take a leadership role in this very important issue. We need you. If you do, we will ALL reap the rewards. And remember: This isn’t just a Virginia issue or mid-Atlantic region issue. This is a United States issue. It’s a national security issue. And it’s something we must address today for our nation to remain strong tomorrow.

In closing, let me quote Mister Rogers again: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

We see the need. We—all of us—have the power to respond. So let’s all be heroes. Together.

Thank you.

About HII

HII is a global, all-domain defense provider. HII’s mission is to deliver the world’s most powerful ships and all-domain solutions in service of the nation, creating the advantage for our customers to protect peace and freedom around the world. As the nation’s largest military shipbuilder, and with a more than 135-year history of advancing U.S. national security, HII delivers critical capabilities extending from ships to unmanned systems, cyber, ISR, AI/ML and synthetic training. Headquartered in Virginia, HII’s workforce is 43,000 strong. For more information, visit: