US Economy

Where the jobs are: Defense contractors set for a Trump bump

Where the jobs are: Shipbuilding

Shipbuilders like Huntington Ingalls Industries and General Dynamics, as well as their suppliers, are just waiting for President Donald Trump's signal to switch their job engines to full throttle.

As the Navy's largest shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls is already set to hire some 4,000 workers over the next three to five years. CEO Mike Petters said the company is looking for workers in craft and design positions as the market for shipbuilding is improving. With suppliers in all 50 states and 37,000 employees around the globe, the company builds nuclear-powered aircraft and submarines at its Newport News, Virginia, shipyard, and non-nuclear ships such as cutters and destroyers in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

"We have dozens of crafts that are involved in the building of the ships — it's pipefitters, welders, painters, insulators, sheet metal workers," Petters said. "Just about anything you can imagine you might need in building a city, we use, because, frankly, that is what we are building."

Now Trump is also calling for a major expansion of the U.S. military, to the tune of $603 billion, with a $54 billion budgetary boost in defense spending. Among the president's priorities is to expand the Navy: He's calling for 350 ships, up from today's 274, marking the largest naval buildup since the Cold War.

That move would mean more business and jobs after years of stagnation due to constraints under the government's sequestration of funds. The president has made repeated calls for Congress to eliminate the Defense sequester, which places spending caps until 2021.

"By eliminating the sequester and the uncertainty it creates, it will make it easier for the Navy to plan for the future, and thus control costs and get the best deals for the taxpayer, which of course is very important," Trump said last week at Huntington Ingalls' Newport News shipyard.

Still, a divided Congress stands in Trump's way. "There are political dynamics in Washington that aren't going to let him achieve a larger military without consequences," said Roman Schweizer, senior aerospace defense and policy analyst at Cowen. "I think it's going to be difficult for him to get what he wants."

Still serving his country

Worker at Newport News Shipbuilding facility.

The company is also investing in training apprentices like Jeffery Cofer, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran. Cofer served in the National Guard in 2011 and now serves his country by building ships for the Navy. His prior service experience gives him a unique perspective on constructing equipment to be used by U.S. servicemen and women.

"While I was in Iraq, one of my greatest fears was that we would have some kind of a mechanical or system failure due to a lack of quality," Cofer recalled. "I didn't want something that was avoidable to cause me injury or kill me. I don't want our sailors to have that fear — I want them to know that the work I do here and we do here is quality work, and we deliver good ships."

Cofer has spent the past three years working toward completing his 8,000 hours to be a pipefitter, studying everything from basic math to naval architecture. Entry-level salaries range from $36,000 to $57,000 a year, with opportunities for overtime and benefits. The ships built by Huntington Ingalls last for up to 50 years, Petters said.

"What we have is the opportunity for you to do something with your hands, and your head, and your heart that will be bigger than yourself," he said. "You get to be part of a big team that is going to be playing a very important role in American history for the rest of your life."

Congressional green light

USS Gerald R. Ford built by Huntington Ingalls.

While Trump has yet to release a formal budget, Petters remains optimistic that the new administration will be good for business. He is also hopeful the sequester will be lifted, as his company relies heavily on the orderly flow of work from one ship to the next.

"Let's get out of this kind of crazy method of government-by-algorithm," he said. "And let's get back to the process of creating budgets and establishing priorities and allocating resources to those priorities."

Congressional fight or not, workers like Cofer will be ready for action.

"I know what it feels like to be on the other end of equipment built by American workers, so I'm very honored and proud to be a part of it," he said.