The Case for Career & Technical Education Symposium at Thomas Nelson Community College

By Mike Petters, HII president and CEO (as prepared)
HII Corporate Workforce Development

If you know Huntington Ingalls Industries’ slogan—“Hard Stuff. Done Right.”—you probably think it applies to the ships and submarines we build for the United States Navy and Coast Guard.  And you’re right.

Mike Petters at TNCC
HII President and CEO Mike Petters

But it applies to everything we do, including a wide range of government services work at our year-old Technical Solutions division …And it applies to the processes we use to do our work—always trying to do each job better than the last and creating value for our customers and shareholders. Most importantly: It applies to the people who do it.

If our greatest resource is our people, our greatest accomplishment—and our greatest continuous challenge—is recruiting, training and retaining nearly 39,000 men and women not only here in Virginia, but in 42 states across the country. Fortunately, we’re pretty good at it, and because of that,  we’re frequently asked to speak on the topic of  workforce development.

Everywhere I go, whether it’s …

  • a Virginia Chamber of Commerce event in Richmond …
  • the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. …
  • The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council in New York …
  • or a panel right here in Newport News …

Everyone agrees that we need to fill the “skills gap,” and everyone says we need more science, technology, engineering and math professionals. So: If we’re not getting what we want out of the system, what are we putting into it? At HII we invest $100 million a year in workforce development. We run apprentice schools—not just the one here in Newport News, but one at our Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Mississippi.

We also started a scholarship fund to help the children of HII employees. While it includes monetary awards for students at traditional four-year schools, we included awards for students at two-year schools like Thomas Nelson. And as a demonstration of our commitment to early education, we also give awards to families with children in pre-K readiness programs.

To really fill that skills gap – which most people relate to STEM jobs and careers in technical fields – it requires business, government AND educational systems all working together. The educational institutions have a big role to play, and sometimes I think they are missing the big picture.

Let me pose a question.  Who is the customer in education?  Is it the parents? The future employers? The actual school or university? Well, I believe the customer is the student, and that is where everyone should be investing their time and energy to create success. Sounds simple doesn’t it?  But it’s really not.

Too often I hear of someone who wanted to be a doctor or who wanted to study engineering but that first biology or chemistry or calculus class did them in and they weren’t confident enough to keep going. Did anyone try to help them develop confidence?  Did anyone say, ‘Hey, it’s ok, I took calculus twice.  I took statistics twice.’ Because ladies and gentlemen, that was me.  I took Algebra twice.  And I took calculus twice.

In my opinion, colleges need to focus more on what success looks like for the student than on what success looks like for the school. Let’s take college rankings.  The more people you turn away, the higher you can be ranked. 

I realize this is an oversimplification, but shouldn’t higher education be focused on embracing those that want to learn even if they learn at a different pace?  In a different way?

As a CEO, I’m constantly telling my leadership team to “Have good people.”   You noticed I didn’t say “Hire good people.” This is about a leader’s mindset.

Let me tell you a story here to illustrate what I mean by that. During my days at the Naval Academy, I was told this story that really illustrates, to me, the mindset on having good people. There was this ship at sea during the Vietnam War.  Whenever general quarters were called, the sailors in the Command Information Control Center would write operational info on these very large plexi-glass boards using grease pencils. You’ve seen this in the movies.

Well on this particular ship, the quartermaster noticed that after the general quarters were secured, there would be no grease pencils left in the CIC. He complained about having to buy grease pencils to the ship’s Executive Officer who asked why. The Quartermaster said it was because the sailors were thieves. The XO didn’t hesitate in correcting his crew member. 

He said the reason the sailors took the grease pencils is because they wanted to make sure, when they were called to duty in the CIC, they had the tools to properly perform their job. And he instructed that Quartermaster to buy 10 boxes of grease pencils and ensure they were always there so the sailors would be confident in their ability to properly perform their duties. That XO demonstrated the mindset needed to have good people.

Shouldn’t higher education approach their customers – their students – in this same way?

Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves: Are America’s institutions of higher learning working to SOLVE the STEM problem, or are they ADDING to it? It’s a complicated problem, but I think we can make a big difference with some different approaches. 

For example: Technology is fast, but technical education shouldn’t be. Think about that. Technology is fast …But technical education shouldn’t be.  Let’s slow down the curriculum. Let’s create an educational process that helps everyone succeed in their chosen fields—not one that weeds out those when they decide they can’t cut it. That doesn’t mean we’ll all be brain surgeons.

But it means if I want to be a brain surgeon, I shouldn’t give up on that dream because I didn’t pass calculus in my freshman or sophomore year of college. We also need to get past the idea that you need to go to a certain school for a certain degree to excel in a certain field. The truth is, what may well be a good engineering school for one student might not be a good engineering school for another student—for any number of reasons.

Trust me: HII employs more than 5,000 engineers, and they didn’t all go to Old Dominion University or Virginia Tech or North Carolina State.  Many of them started right here at Thomas Nelson Community College. And you know what? Of those 5,000 engineers, I can guarantee that some of them had to take statistics or thermodynamics or another course twice because they didn’t quite get it the first time. And that’s OK.

If you insist on ranking schools, show me the ones with the highest admission rates and the ones that work the hardest to help the most students finish. Honestly, it’s probably the community colleges. And the service academies. It’s the schools with the highest retention rates and the lowest attrition rates.

A personal example: My nephew Leo received an appointment to attend my alma mater, the Naval Academy. He told me he was excited but nervous, and he was feeling overwhelmed.  So he asked me for advice. I told him: “For all the pressure they put on you, everyone there wants you to succeed.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll get it. And not because they will lower their standards, but because they’ll work with you so that you meet the standards.”

I’m not saying everyone who starts at the Academy finishes, but everyone who wants to and is willing to do the hard work will get an abundance of help along the way. Fortunately, there are helpers everywhere, not just at the Academy. Teachers, family members, friends, mentors, tutors, counselors, bosses, baby-sitters … They all form a critical support system for the most important element of the pipeline: the students.

Thomas Nelson is helping. Senator Kaine’s Career and Technical Education Caucus is helping. And as I mentioned earlier, HII is helping. We need to shift our focus to the students to ensure that they are customers of the system. And we’ve got to make sure the customer is not only heard, but 100 percent satisfied.

I could go on and on—education and workforce development are two of my favorite subjects—but I thought it would be more interesting if I told stories about a few people who were helped along the way.

When Carol Mick graduated from Phoebus High School, she didn’t have the grades or the money to go to a four-year college.  She decided to attend Thomas Nelson, using a Pell grant and working part-time as a waitress. She graduated in two years and went on to attend The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding. “I know that the classes I took at TNCC are what enabled me to get into The Apprentice School,” she said. “I had taken some of the required classes in high school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t have everything needed, and what I did take I didn’t have the best grades.”

She was the first woman to graduate from The Apprentice School as an outside machinist. Her educational journey didn’t end there. Almost 20 years into her shipbuilding career, she decided to pursue the bachelor’s degree she had always wanted. She enrolled at Christopher Newport University and studied business. She said her coursework here at Thomas Nelson fulfilled many of the basic classes all students take when they attend a four-year college. “It took me 10 years to get that degree,” she said, “but without TNCC, it would have taken longer.”

Let me tell you about Carol’s career path. When she graduated from The Apprentice School, she was promoted to foreman. She progressed to construction supervisor and has worked in the aircraft carrier overhaul and Virginia-class submarine programs and in fleet support. She’s currently a construction supervisor working on the overhaul of the submarine USS Columbus.

For Wayne Evans and his three siblings, growing up in a single-income, blue-collar home meant traditional college was out of the question. “Graduating high school in the Evans household meant getting a job and paying your way,” he said. Upon the recommendation of his vocational educational teacher, he enrolled at The Apprentice School. “Getting paid while going to school,” he said. “What a great opportunity!” He performed well enough to join the advanced curriculum track, which included courses taught by Thomas Nelson professors right in the shipyard. He ended up pursuing an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. The shipyard helped him—letting him rotate between first and third shifts while he attended classes at night. “Thomas Nelson was geared toward the adult learner,” he said, “while the traditional colleges in the area were catering to the traditional full time student mainly on a daytime basis.”

Wayne was also helped by his family, who instilled in him a great work ethic. His father was a carpenter who never missed a day of work. His uncle was commercial fisherman who was the first to leave the dock every day and the last to return. And his grandfather on his mother’s side was a shipyard welder. Wayne was the first person in his family to earn a degree of any kind. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from St. Leo University. He currently works as a director of general manufacturing on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. “The link between The Apprentice School, Thomas Nelson Community College and St. Leo has helped me obtain my formal education, for which I am truly grateful,” he said.  

Debra Trueman took a much different path, serving in the Navy for 20 years and then enrolling in Thomas Nelson’s engineering program.  She said she wouldn’t have succeeded as an engineer if not for the foundation of key structural engineering principles she learned at Thomas Nelson. “I thought that the curriculum at TNCC taught me more everyday engineering principles than I learned in my two years at the university level,” she said. “I would highly recommend TNCC as the school to start with, not just for the money it saved, but because the education was extremely significant in helping me succeed as an engineer.” Two of Debra’s professors stood out. The first was a department head who helped her and other students with especially challenging coursework. “She made sure that no one got by in her classes without learning the material,” Debra said.

The second was a differential equations professor who recommended her for a job as a tutor in the Math Lab. “By helping others succeed in their studies,” Debra said, “I also stayed proficient in my math skills, which helped me excel in other classes.”  Debra now works as an engineer in Newport News’ Nuclear Propulsion—Construction and Process Engineering Department.

Bill Smith took a more conventional route, graduating from The Apprentice School and working for a year in the sheet metal shop before deciding to continue his education at Thomas Nelson. He wanted a mechanical engineering degree, and he considered attending Old Dominion University, but he ultimately decided to attend Thomas Nelson because it was an easier commute for him, and he knew if he got his associate’s degree, he could transfer his credits to ODU. Which is exactly what he did.

“TNCC was a great school,” Bill said. “It was convenient. It had the same classes and covered the same material as ODU. The cost per credit hour was much cheaper, and the class sizes were smaller. Having a school like TNCC on the Peninsula that can provide a quality education is a tremendous asset for the community and the students that attend.” Bill is now a vice president for program management at Newport News Shipbuilding, which makes him the highest-ranking HII employee with a degree from Thomas Nelson.

These four shipbuilders represent nearly 1,000 others who have earned degrees or certificates at Thomas Nelson and are in the midst of very successful careers at HII. But Carol, Wayne, Debra and Bill have other things in common.They all continued their education. They were all helped along the way. And, I would add, they’re all doing something they love.

For Carol, it’s “seeing such magnificent boats come together.”  “I love knowing that all our hard work has paid off,” she said. For Wayne, it’s “working daily with the dedicated craftsmen and craftswomen that assemble these great ships.” For Debra, it’s “the sense of service to country that I get from being here building war ships for the Navy.” “I love being on the waterfront and helping the trades get their job done right,” she said. And for Bill, it’s the fact that every day brings a different challenge.  “The company recognizes what we do has a positive impact of not only the business but Navy as a whole,” he said.

Career and technical education is the bridge that gets many students from where they are to where they want to be. Let’s get more people into these critical programs …Let’s do everything we can to help them finish … And let’s give them the tools they need to change their lives and pursue what they love.

At the beginning of my remarks, I briefly mentioned the Committee for Economic Development, which is a nonprofit and nonpartisan business-led public policy organization that delivers well-researched analysis and reasoned solutions to our nation’s most critical issues, including career readiness.

Last year, the CED published a report that recommended five specific areas for improving career readiness:

  • Coordination and collaboration among stakeholders
  • Communication among stakeholders
  • Tools, resources and support to identify career pathways
  • Work-based learning opportunities
  • And development of soft skills

“The common thread,” the CED said, is “a goal of helping students navigate a path toward a successful, rewarding career.” I’ll simplify that just a bit and say: Have Good Students.

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: