"Investing in Children Today—Ensuring a Quality Workforce Tomorrow"

Bill Ermatinger, HII's corporate vice president, human resources, speaks at the Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater Annual Meeting, Paul D. Camp Regional Workforce Development Center in Franklin, Va. (as prepared)
HII Corporate Workforce Development

Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Phillip, for your kind introduction.

I was honored to be asked to speak with all of you today about such a timely and important topic.

It’s great to see so many people—from so many different organizations and backgrounds—engaged in efforts to improve early childhood education. Although I’m not an expert on the subject, I thought I would approach it more broadly—from the perspective of someone who recruits and hires thousands of employees for Huntington Ingalls Industries.

In my work, I’ve seen first-hand the wide range of skills and qualities needed in our employees for them to be successful. Of course, there are the straightforward math and verbal skills needed to be effective. And then there are the less defined but equally important “soft” skills that we seek out—like the ability to work well with others, to be a good listener and the willingness to persist, even when the going gets tough, until the job is finished.

Bill Ermatinger
Bill Ermatinger, HII corporate vice president, human resources

As you know, studies show that many of these tangible and intangible skills and traits start to take shape early on, during those very important first years—from birth to age 5. And this is why “getting it right from the start” with children is so important. “Getting it right from the start” is the essence of what the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s “Smart Beginnings” effort is all about: giving our children the best possible start toward reaching their full potential as citizens, as part of our workforce and as job-creators.

I’m pleased to serve on the board of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, an organization that is forging Smart Beginnings initiatives across the state, including a coalition of local leaders right here in western Tidewater.

 In addition, I was honored when asked by our Lieutenant Governor to serve on the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success. I’ve also had the pleasure of serving on the board of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which included early childhood education in its “Blueprint Virginia” economic competitiveness plan, recognizing the direct link between a strong start in the early years and the quality of the workforce pipeline.

I was actually the chairman of the Virginia Chamber board during the year-long process of developing the Blueprint. That process included talking with chambers and business people across the state about what they thought was most important for Virginia’s economic success. Over and over again, we heard from small and large businesses that education and workforce development are the most important issues facing Virginia—and that we needed to start investing in our workforce at a much earlier stage. There was no question that early childhood education was a priority for the business community and that it would be a key strategy in our Blueprint.

The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and its Smart Beginnings partners are working side-by-side with the Virginia Chamber and local chambers across the state to ensure that children start school ready to learn and on-track for workforce success.

Many in Virginia’s business community have long recognized that the talent pool for the future workforce begins with young children who start school healthy and ready to learn.

As many of you are aware, Huntington Ingalls Industries—HII—is Virginia’s largest manufacturing employer, and we build a few important things—like nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. My boss, Mike Petters, likes to use the metaphor of building a ship properly from the very beginning to illustrate the importance of starting our children off right with quality early childhood education. Mike emphasizes how much more cost-effective it is to correctly design and build a ship at the onset, than it is to retrofit the ship later.

Virginia is home to more than 600,000 children under the age of 6, and in any given week, nearly 394,000 of them spend some time in child care. Unfortunately, slightly more than 15 percent of (or 279,000) children in the Commonwealth live in poverty—a number which has grown in recent years. The demand for child care and early education programming is significant and continues to increase, but for a variety of reasons the current system in Virginia does not adequately meet the demand.

Over the next decade, we are going to see fast-moving changes in our economy, driven by global demands and changes in technology. The demand for jobs in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is increasing rapidly. Here in Virginia, we need to make sure we have a talented workforce to stay competitive.

Today, we hope to engage all of you in western Tidewater to continue to grow and strengthen the network of local leadership supporting school readiness in this area. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, most parents struggle with finding high-quality, affordable care and education. Over the last five years, center-based care prices have increased by 14 percent for infants and 16 percent for 4-year-olds. Meanwhile, family child care home prices have increased by 21 percent for infants and 17 percent for 4-year-olds. These increased costs have dramatic impacts on the affordability and accessibility of quality care.

Whether you represent business, schools, parents, child care providers, higher education, faith communities—all of you are driving the effort to lay the groundwork for school success and a more prosperous community.

So what does it take to build healthy, educated individuals who perform well throughout school and become productive members of society and the workforce?

Virginia’s workforce pipeline begins with ready children—those who have had the chance to develop reading, math and social skills; interact with their peers; and problem-solve. These are the seeds of the skills we look for in the workplace.

Public-private partnerships like Smart Beginnings can play an important role in forging commitment to promote school readiness. Investing in the pre-school years and giving our children the education, the experience and the nurturing they need has a pay-off that literally lasts a lifetime.

Studies show that children who enter kindergarten healthy and ready to learn have greater success all along the education pipeline—and are more likely to become well prepared and productive employees. Communities and our state can benefit from the long-term effects of high-quality preschool, including higher rates of employment and earnings.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota found that an initial investment in a high-quality preschool program and enriched education through third grade yields a 16 percent rate return, with 80 percent of the benefits accruing to society at large, not just the individual. With ROIs in the 16 percent range, what’s not to like?

Looking at our situation here in Virginia, at least 1 in 8 children lack the skills needed to start school prepared to learn. The cost to us, as taxpayers, is more than $78 million every year for unprepared students who must repeat a grade between kindergarten and third grade. Students who don’t read well by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, and students in poverty who aren’t strong readers by third grade are 13 times more likely to drop out. High school drop-outs are eight times more likely to commit crimes and spend time in prison. And, of course, they earn only a fraction of what their peers who graduate earn. But by investing early, we have the ability to turn these outcomes around.
Children who are nurtured and exposed to quality learning at a young age perform better academically, are more likely to graduate from high school, own a home and become law-abiding citizens. These are compelling statistics, clearly showing the benefits of a quality early education over the course of a lifetime.

As I’ve spent more than two decades of my professional life in the aerospace and defense industry, I can appreciate this long-term perspective. I learned early in my career that my role in human resources is to build the infrastructure of people to take our company through the changes that are constant in our industry. That is why at HII we’ve made it a priority to focus on education, investing and encouraging excellence at every step of the education pipeline, from small grants to help a classroom of first-graders, to a larger, statewide focus, like our partnership with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and its Smart Beginnings efforts. For many years now, we’ve known that the best possible investments to make for children are in the earliest years.

At HII, we support early childhood initiatives such as the Downtown Hampton Child Development Center, which is the highest-rated child care facility in Hampton and one of the highest rated in the state. In Mississippi, where we operate our Ingalls Shipbuilding division, we support a similar organization called Excel by 5, which focuses on children 5 and under. To realize the full potential of the investments we make in early education, both public and private, we need to all work together to determine what works and what doesn’t work. That’s why I’m so pleased to see the diverse turn-out today—teachers, local government representatives, business leaders, social workers, parents … we are all stakeholders in this critical process. And we’re all here because we know how important early education is for our future workforce and for the future of America.

During both downturns and recoveries, economic success goes to those states, those communities and those companies that have the best-prepared workforce. That is why the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s “Blueprint Virginia” effort focused so heavily on workforce and education. These two issues are deeply intertwined, they are critical to our success, and they both need to begin with our young children, if we are to have the best workforce for the 21st century.

We have widespread consensus within the business community and growing, bipartisan consensus among our public officials that investments in early childhood are the best long-term investments we can make. It is, therefore, important that all of us are committed to making smart beginnings for every child a priority, even amidst the public sector budget constraints we read about and experience day to day.

Here’s the challenge: We can’t expect government and business to do it alone. It’s going to take consistent encouragement and support from all of us who are stakeholders. It’s going to take partnerships in many forms between business, government, education, communities and other social infrastructure.
There’s no silver bullet. We have to use every tool in the toolbox and think of new ones.

Here’s another challenge: We can’t be restricted by short-term ROI—return on investment. What do I mean by that? If we spend money on training and workforce development, we’ll see results in short order. But with early childhood education, we won’t be able to measure the return immediately. It’s a long-term investment. It’s playing the long game. This is harder than it sounds because we live in a world where short-term thinking is becoming the norm. And at HII, we believe early childhood education is an investment we need to make for our communities, our business, and for American business to thrive globally.

We hope that you will join us.

Scratch that. We are counting on you to join us.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today and for all you are doing to help give our children the best possible start. I look forward to working with all of you as we move forward.

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: