Last December, President Biden issued an executive order declaring that a “robust, resilient, and competitive domestic defense industrial base” was essential to America’s national security—and he outlined that it must come with the capability, capacity, and workforce to meet the demand signal for the Virginia-class submarine production. To accomplish that, the order directed the Department of Defense to utilize the Korean War-era Defense Production Act (DPA) to expand the Virginia program’s Large Scale Fabrication capacity, as well as our domestic Maritime Workforce Training Pipelines.
Among the thousands of programs at the Department of Defense, this extraordinary edict specifically singled out the Virginia-class submarine program for DPA support. The White House justified the order as necessary “to ensure the U.S. Navy can maintain open sea lanes for global communication and commerce, enhance diplomatic partnerships, and grow a robust underwater capability.” Make no mistake—to single out this singular defense program as a DPA priority is incredibly unique. It recognizes that America’s submarine fleet still holds an advantage over a numerically larger Chinese Navy, but that the edge we hold is at risk if our nation’s industrial base isn’t sized-up to take on higher production levels.
In the year since that executive order was signed, the Biden administration has focused even more fervently on industrial base capacity. Navy shipyards of every sort—surface warships, support vessels, and submarines—have been in COVID recovery mode as supply chain bottlenecks and workforce disruption have slowed production. Like all U.S. manufacturers, shipyards in 2021 and 2022 have experienced a spike in retirements and sluggish new hiring that has resulted in unprecedented high numbers of job openings. Adding to the challenge, Navy shipyards are also now competing against smaller supply chain defense manufacturers similarly eager to hire, and against non-defense manufacturers in industries like electric vehicles, aerospace, microchip and semiconductor production, and wind turbines, to name a few.
Ironically, this is all happening at a time where there is mounting consensus about the need to grow the Navy and the defense budget as a whole. In July, the Democratic-controlled House voted 329-101 to raise defense spending by $37 billion above Biden’s 2023 request, and in the Senate, there has been a push to go even higher. That higher spending, however, begs an important question: how executable are these budgets and shipbuilding goals, given the workforce strains on the defense industrial base?
For defense leaders both in government and out, it’s a time of reckoning. We have got to go “upstream” to develop intensive, accelerated job training programs that can meet the moment, and help deter rising threats of malign behavior around the globe. This is a uniquely American task. Since World War II, the U.S. has been the “Arsenal of Democracy” thanks to its industrial might. That persistent role has been accomplished because of tried-and-true models of “earn while you learn” training, enshrined in the National Apprenticeship Act enacted in 1937. That law was enhanced with the Workforce Investment Act that was passed in 1998, opening pre-apprenticeship models for adult trainees that are developed locally, and funded federally. Lastly, the Perkins Career and Technical Education Actfunds local technical high schools that connect teens to skills for manufacturing careers, not just jobs.
These three programs have proven track records of success, but they share one adverse characteristic: they have been persistently underfunded over the years, undermining their visibility and scope. Indeed, all the funding for job training in the U.S. adds up to a fraction of what developed countries from Europe, Canada, and Australia invest in their economies. In 2022, this glaring shortfall is now biting into America’s economic growth and national defense. Rather than wring our hands, here is an agenda for defense leaders to solve the industrial base problem:
- Pass the long-overdue reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Actfor the first time in 85 years to size-up its scope, and extend its reach to underserved communities. The House passed this bill by 247-173.
- Pass the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Actto help us expand the size and reach of our already-successful, federally funded skills-training and workforce development programs. The House passed this bill by 220-196.
- Ensure that the Department of Defense directs its funding in the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) program to existing, high-functioning job training programs that the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Education already oversee.
This agenda might be viewed as “outside” of the national defense portfolio, since it revolves around programs in other agencies, but nothing could be further from the truth.
When Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Act (the Fitzgerald Act) in 1937, it turned out to be a key moment that decided the outcome of World War II. The Act established national standards for the metal trades and the building trades that was instrumental to the overwhelming output of planes, ships, munitions, and tanks that the U.S. and our allies needed to win. It was a true “all of government” approach, and it’s clear we need that same all-in effort to meet the challenges of today.
Joe Courtney represents the 2nd District and is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.