By Jared Council
The average age in the local ship repair and shipbuilding industry is about 54, industry leaders said at a recent job summit, a testament to the sector's struggles in attracting younger employees.
"We can't get enough welders; we can't get enough pipefitters," Virginia Ship Repair Association President Bill Crow said, adding that the industry will need to fill roughly 18,000 jobs by 2020.
The money's not bad - salaries average around $70,000 in Hampton Roads, Crow said. So the struggles likely stem from people's perception of the industry, Tidewater Community College President Edna Baehre-Kolovani said at the summit.
"From a recruitment standpoint," Baehre-Kolovani said, "we can't recruit enough welders... because of that perception. All the parents want for their children is the four-year degree, and the perception oftentimes is that these are dirty jobs."
Those and other comments came Tuesday at an event called "Let's Grow," which included a job discussion session for local business leaders and a luncheon featuring two of Virginia's gubernatorial candidates. The event, held at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, was presented by Tidewater Community College and Inside Business.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli discussed jobs but also delved into other items on their agenda, including Cuccinelli's plan to cut $1.4 billion in taxes and McAuliffe's plan to expand Medicaid.
The two candidates launched multiple jabs at each other, from McAuliffe suggesting his opponent will waste time on a social, ideological agenda to Cuccinelli claiming his opponent "chased jobs" from Virginia. Cuccinelli was in the hall with reporters during McAuliffe's speech and McAuliffe left before Cuccinelli spoke, event officials said.
Robert Sarvis, the libertarian candidate in the race, was not invited to the event. In an emailed statement, he pledged to reduce or eliminate the state income tax as part of his jobs plan.
Prior to the luncheon, business leaders from various sectors talked jobs for two hours. The session, moderated by former Hampton Roads Partnership President Dana Dickens, was closed to the public but open to reporters. A white paper will be published in Inside Business in September, event officials said. Twenty-six leaders were invited, 23 showed up and everyone spoke.
Greg Grootendorst, chief economist with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, kicked off the conversation with a presentation on the region's economy, which included slides on job gains and losses in recent years.
The construction industry lost a net of 10,000 jobs between June 2007 and June 2013, but has been one of the top sectors to rebound, adding 4,000 jobs between June 2012 and June 2013. Jeff Ainslie, president of Ainslie Group, noted that the industry is recovering, but that highly technical trade skills will be needed to sustain growth and help balance the economy.
"The whole foundation of America is based on producing goods," Ainslie said, "and then we converted into this servicing goods kind of economy. But if we no longer produce anything, we don't have anything to service - except for somebody else's product that we import from overseas."
The local health care and social assistance sector has seen strong job growth throughout the recession, adding 13,200 new jobs from June 2007 to June 2013, Grootendorst noted. Representatives from the area's two largest health systems - Bon Secours Virginia and Sentara Healthcare - were present and touched on the implications of the Affordable Care Act.
"It's going to be critical that the training and the jobs that are created are helping people navigate into these new health care exchanges," said Thom Prevette, director of advocacy and community relations at Bon Secours Virginia.
"It's about extending the care of physicians through physician assistants and nurse practitioners."
After military spending and the ports, tourism is considered a pillar of the local economy, tourism officials said, especially as cities in Hampton Roads attempt to become year-round destinations. This sector gained 3,900 jobs during the 12 months following June 2012, and Virginia Coastal Tourism Alliance Chairman Tony DiFilippo said the industry offers ample opportunities for upward mobility.
"I started as a valet parking attendant," said DiFilippo, talking about his career origins in Florida. He eventually became general manager at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.
YUPO Corporation America, a Chesapeake-based synthetic paper manufacturer, was represented at the meeting by President and CEO Paul Mitcham. He said several of the company's clients emerged from the recession stronger, and as such, "we are growing."
Retail has not had much success through the recession, losing 9,500 jobs through between June 2007 and June 2013, including 1,000 lost jobs between June 2012 and June 2013.
Lynnhaven Mall General Manager Michael Harris said the retail sector is usually the first to feel the impact of recessions and the last to recover. Still, he said, retail is important to local economies because it offers employees everything from a flexible job to a career.
"An individual can have a second job, or the spouse can have a job that's flexible to work with the kids' schedules," Harris said. "I don't know the number, but I'm sure we have many students that attend TCC."
Zach Miller, managing director of Hatch Norfolk, said when talking about jobs, the "coolness" of the area shouldn't be lost in the conversation.
"Twenty-five percent of our youth is heading out," Miller said, "but they're 100 percent of our future and we have to start thinking what's cool for them."
Later in the session, Carol Curtis of Noah Enterprises, a general contracting firm, noted that her son said he doesn't want to go into construction because he said she works too hard.
"Not everything in life is cool," she said, "but hard work pays off."
Miller interjected, saying he meant "not necessarily the jobs, but the area a person lives in."
Grootendorst reminded the group that some of the jobs of tomorrow may not exist yet, and that leaders should help foster an environment where those jobs can be created.
"There's an adage that 50 percent of the new jobs 10 years from now haven't been invented yet. Ten years ago, who was going to be an app developer?" Grootendorst said. "So if we want to look at where we get return on investment and we recognize that every place is important, then I think it becomes obvious that the investment should begin with education."