Shipyard Today

Riggers Danny Kimura and Jeremy Keone remove a shore power cable while helping to undock the submarine Olympia in November.

Photo:  U.S. Navy/Edward Freeman

When World War II ended, employees left the Islands by the thousands, returning to their homes on the Mainland and leaving the shipyard’s workforce at about a third of the size of its wartime peak. In the subsequent Cold War, the United States transitioned its ships from diesel to nuclear power. 

Pearl Harbor responded by establishing its Nuclear Power Division in 1961, with the capability of overhauling and refueling nuclear reactors for submarines. The shipyard survived leaner times in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War brought drastic cuts in military spending and personnel, and the U.S. Navy fleet went from a high of nearly 600 ships in the mid-’80s to about 280 today.

With the emergence of potential hotspots in Asia and the Middle East in recent years, the trend is starting to reverse. The Navy now plans to build up its current fleet to 313 ships by 2020 and shift more of its submarine force to the Pacific. Within the next few years, 60 percent of the Navy’s attack submarines will be based in the Pacific, and 40 percent in the Atlantic.

“The strategic importance of the Pacific theater is more than it’s ever been,” says shipyard commander Capt. Greg Thomas. “It’s critical that the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard seize the moment.”

Riggers Nestor Muyat and Galen Nasciemento maintain tension on lines to keep the USS Key West aligned as it entered dry dock in January.

Photo:  U.S. navy/Michael Laley

The Workforce

The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard is the state’s largest industrial employer, with 4,100 civilian workers and more than 400 military personnel. More than half work in the shipyard’s five major shops—structural, mechanical, electrical, piping and paint. They do everything from maintaining the 16 submarines and 11 ships homeported at Pearl Harbor to performing complete submarine overhauls that can take up to two-and-a-half years.

“We can basically rip out the whole submarine and put it all back together,” says production resources manager Kaipo Crowell. “For an engineering refueling overhaul, we go into the reactor compartment and change the fuel. We also do maintenance on pumps, upgrade electronic systems, weapons systems, refurbish a lot of the equipment.” 

The shipyard has stepped up its recruitment efforts over the past few years. A quarter of its employees are now 55 or older and, like many corporations, the shipyard will lose many of them as baby boomers retire over the next decade. To attract new talent, the shipyard partners with the University of Hawaii to recruit engineers and managers. It also runs a highly competitive apprentice program. Of the 2,000 who apply annually, only about 100 are selected. Most of them arrive straight out of high school, but others, like Anna Tanaka, have chosen the shipyard as a second career. The 44-year-old mother works in the rigging department, which uses cranes, chainfalls and other gear to lift and transport anything from 50-pound safes to 74,000-pound ship parts. “You carry 25 to 30 pounds of gear on your shoulders, and you’re going up and down ladders on the boat. It’s dirty, oily and grimy—I love it,” says Tanaka.

Work at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard doesn't just mean work at Pearl Harbor.  Shipyard employees travel to work on submarines ported anywhere from the West Coast to the Persian Gulf.

Shaping Up

Capt. Greg Thomas with U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono.

Photo: courtesy of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

Since 1989, the federal government has closed more than 350 U.S. military installations to save money and improve efficiency. It’s a process known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). In 2005, the shipyard got a wake-up call when it looked like it might on the chopping block. The BRAC commission considered adding the shipyard to the list of potential closures. At question was Pearl Harbor’s performance. Historically, the shipyard’s expenses and repair times had outpaced those of other shipyards, due in part to Hawaii’s cost of living and the wide-ranging nature of the shipyard’s work. “In the past, we’ve always felt insulated from BRAC because of our strategic location,” says chief of engineering Brian Yim. “We don’t want to stand behind that. We want to stand on our performance.”   

While the quality of its work can’t be compromised, the shipyard needs to be more efficient, says Capt. Greg Thomas, who assumed command of the shipyard in 2007. “What matters right now is on-time delivery—that’s the biggest measure. Cost also matters. We have significant budgets, and we have to live within that.”

Over the next 20 years, the shipyard is looking to spend nearly $2 billion on new construction and improvements. That includes concentrating more operations closer to its dry docks and piers. More than 60 percent of the 115 buildings in the shipyard’s controlled industrial area—the docks, piers and shops where the repair work is actually done—are outdated, many of them nearly as old as the shipyard itself. State-of-the art concrete buildings stand alongside corrugated metal warehouses with signs warning of asbestos. Several buildings, including one that’s 60,000 square feet, have been condemned.

But the shipyard can’t just bulldoze these structures. Many of them are considered historic, protected by Pearl Harbor’s status as a National Historic Landmark. That’s why the shipyard is working with the state and others to balance the preservation of Pearl Harbor with the needs of its modern-day shipyard. Thomas says, “We’re appropriately sensitive to the need to preserve the structures that allow people to reflect on the past. But some of those structures have to come down.”

Chief Ron Fontes (left) helps a shipyard diver suit up.

Photo: courtesy of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

Underwater Work

Just like their World War II predecessors, the shipyard’s  40 military and civilian divers perform some of the most dangerous work at Pearl Harbor. A diver needs to be a jack of all trades, capable of performing sonar work, rigging, hull inspections, cable runs and even submarine propeller removals—all in and under the water. “A lot of times you’re climbing into a ballast tank where a lot of people wouldn’t fit or in other access areas where there’s zero visibility, and it’s either exceptionally hot or exceptionally cold,” explains Navy Diver First Class Julius McManus. “It’s a really different atmosphere.”

Divers usually save the shipyard money, by helping to avoid dry-docking a ship—a daylong process that costs about $750,000. But people who can do this work are hard to find. “You gotta be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation,” says diving supervisor Erik Hauptmann. “There has to be a lot of trust in a dive team. You rely on people outside to make sure you have adequate air supply, make sure systems work properly and make sure everything’s safe.”

Chief of engineering Brian Yim (right) with UH engineering professor Ronald Knapp.

Photo :courtesy of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

Looking Forward

Ninety percent of the shipyard’s work is performed on submarines. In his 26 years at the shipyard, chief of engineering Brian Yim has seen a lot of changes in submarine technology, but nothing like the new Virginia-class attack submarines commissioned by the U.S. Navy. In 2009, two of the first four of these $2.6 billion vessels, including the USS Hawaii, will be homeported at Pearl Harbor. Four more will follow within the next five years.

“There’s a new type of mission for this submarine,” Yim says. “Before, submarines were very deep-water ships, chasing around the Russians in the Cold War. Virginia can still do that, but now they have to go inland, too—a lot of operations with SEALs and other special-operation units.” 

The 370-foot vessels are bigger than the Los Angeles-class submarines that currently make up the majority of the Navy’s submarine force, but they’re also quieter and stealthier. The Virginia class has a much more sensitive, fly-by-wire, computerized control system with a joystick instead of a steering yoke, which improves ship handling in shallow waters. Gone, too, are traditional periscopes, replaced by masts with digital cameras and sensors.

“There are video screens throughout the control panels,” Yim says. “If you want to increase speed, turn left or go up or down, you just push a button—it’s almost like Star Trek.”

Shipyard commander Capt. Greg Thomas says, “Having the Virginia class here puts us at the forefront of technology, and we're excited about the opportunity. Provided our performance improves, our workload is steady for the indefinite future.”                        

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