Editor's note The following is a portion of the speech that Mike Petters, president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, made at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards on Feb. 9 in Washington, D.C.
For those who may not be familiar with our company, we build ships for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. We're organized in two divisions: Newport News Shipbuilding and Ingalls Shipbuilding. For geographical reference, HII's corporate office and Newport News division is a stone's throw from Hampton University and Norfolk State University. Ingalls operates on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and in New Orleans, Louisiana - states with a rich heritage of HBCUs, including Jackson State University and Alcorn State University in Mississippi - and Grambling State and Southern University in Louisiana.
Ingalls designs and builds amphibious assault ships, amphibious landing docks and destroyers for the Navy and National Security Cutters for the Coast Guard. Newport News designs and builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines and refuels and overhauls Nimitz-class carriers. All told, we have about 37,000 people. Nearly 13,000 - about 35 percent of the workforce - are African American.
More than 5,100 of our employees are engineers or designers.
With the complexity of products we build and the services we provide, we have our share of engineering challenges. Yet I believe our biggest challenge is: Where are we going to find the next generation of our career-ready employees? While solutions to that include finding college graduates - both from two- and four-year schools - it also includes finding high school graduates with the math skills required to do many different kinds of manufacturing work. Consider this excerpt from an actual HII job description: "Candidates must be able to calculate the weight and center of gravity of the item being handled, determine the capacity of the lift points, and calculate the angle imposed on the handling gear in order to select the most appropriate gear for the task at hand."
This job isn't for an engineer. In fact, in terms of education, the position only requires a high school diploma. It's a job description for a rigger. A shipyard rigger is someone who helps safely maneuver ship components, sometimes weighing hundreds of tons, into place, which is something we do a lot of in shipbuilding.
The available talent pool coming directly from high school with the required skills for this kind of manufacturing is shrinking - not only for HII, but for the entire manufacturing industry. That's where the need factors in for innovative and improved approaches to K-12 education.
Education Week recently published its annual "Quality Counts" report, grading all 50 states in six areas of educational policy and performance. The rankings were based on letter grades. None of the states scored higher than a B+. The national average was a C+. It gets worse: The average for K-12 spending was a D, and college readiness was a D+.
This isn't just an education problem or just a government problem. This is a problem for America. And frankly, it's an issue the leaders of the future will have to solve.
I must confess: Education - not manufacturing - is the primary topic of conversation in my family. My wife is a teacher, and we're proud that our two daughters have both chosen to pursue careers in education. Their passion for and dedication to education inspires me every day. And while this family connection explains my personal interest, as a business leader I am very focused and interested in K-12 education as the primary foundation for workforce development.
I don't believe college is the solution for everyone to become career-ready. The key is to get the right level of education for the job you want - and the jobs that are available.
Here are just a few quick statistics in the states where my company has operations:
* In Virginia, there are more than three STEM job openings for each unemployed person.
* In Mississippi, there are nearly two STEM job openings for each unemployed person.
It's clear from these numbers that there is a gap; we are not educating our population for the jobs that we need to fill. And yes, colleges - both four-year and two-year institutions - bear some of the responsibility for filling in the gap, but so do our public schools.
Importantly, I also strongly believe that businesses can - and should - help find solutions to that challenge. At HII, we're doing a lot in this area. We have highly successful apprentice schools in Virginia and Mississippi that help develop trades workers and feed the shipyards' ranks of foremen. We partner with community colleges in the development of a wide range of educational initiatives. And we invest in public schools - with an emphasis on funding STEM and career development programs. Our employees are also doing a lot of things to help make a difference.
Denise Martin, an engineer at Newport News Shipbuilding, volunteers with a tutoring program called TATOO: Taking Action to Overcome Obstacles. TATOO matches volunteers with elementary and middle school students for a yearlong mentorship. The volunteers meet with their assigned students for one hour each week to provide tutoring in the subjects of reading and math. Denise started doing this 14 years ago, and now she directs the program, which includes more than 100 shipyard volunteers.
The students aren't the only ones who learn.
Denise said: "After joining the program, I quickly realized I was getting so much more out of the tutoring session than simply helping the student with their academics. The students were dealing with so many personal challenges at home that appeared as temporary barriers for their success in school. I was inspired to try to let them see their potential beyond their personal circumstances."
Angela Odoms Woods, an engineer at Ingalls Shipbuilding, has a similar story. She volunteers with the HOSTS program - Helping One Student to Succeed - in Louisiana and with the faith-based Micah Project.
"I got involved with these organizations because that's the way I was raised," she said. "I grew up with peers who lost their way because of the lack of support. I feel my Christian duty compels me to help every child that I can, and my civic duty dictates that I try to make this world a better place than I found it. I want children to feel that there is someone in their corner, encouraging them and equipping them for success."
Tennyson Garrett is another engineer from Newport News. Through TATOO, he was assigned a middle school student who protested for an entire month with statements like: "I don't want your help. I'm not good at math.... You're wasting your time. I can't do math.... You should help someone else."
Tennyson was told there was a chance the student would leave school.
"Thank God he didn't," Tennyson said, "because after spending a year with him once a week for 40 minutes not only did he pass math, but his overall grades began to improve. For the next two years, I would see him in the hall, and we would talk about how well he was doing, and I could sense the pride and confidence in his voice."
These engineers are making an impact that is felt way beyond the workforce. They are changing someone's trajectory - someone's path in life.
And there are so many other ways besides tutoring to help change someone's trajectory.
Brian Lang, an engineer at Ingalls Shipbuilding, made a difference by coaching tee-ball and football in Mobile, Ala. He said, "I'm not the most athletic person by far. However, coaching is more than just physical ability. It also takes integrity, commitment, patience and ethics, much like our company values."
It was just as important to Brian to instill these values in the children as it was to learn the sport and to win. And even though he hadn't planned to coach, he was compelled to volunteer when he saw that very few others were stepping up. He said: "I feel I made a lasting impression with all the kids I have coached, as they have done with me. I have seen different kids around town, and they all run up to me and yell, 'Hey, Coach!'"
He calls it coaching. I call that leadership.
I want you to help change someone's trajectory for the better. Do what you can to make your community stronger. Make it a place where our children - no matter their circumstances - have the chance to reach for the stars. This isn't an easy request.
Sometimes someone's path appears to be predetermined by things you cannot change - such as who their parents are, where they live, the economic conditions of their home life. These factors can work for you - but they can also work against you. Yet I know from personal experience that the best way to change that path - to influence a person's outcome - is through education.
The greatness of America is that people can change their trajectory - with education - yet it's often hard to do it on your own. That's where you come in. You're engineers. In fact, you are the best and the brightest. You are leaders. You are trained to solve problems. You just might be able to help solve a problem for someone who deserves a chance - just by getting involved. By turning them from one direction to another. By believing in them when maybe no one else does. Like Tennyson did with his math student. Like Denise, Angela and Brian do with the young people they've chosen to share their time, talent and energy with.
It doesn't take much to help change a life. And in the process, you will probably find that you end up changing yours, too.
As Booker T. Washington said: "If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else."
Mike Petters is president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, America's largest military shipbuilder. To reach him, email HII_Communications@hii-co.com.