When everything’s going right with the welding, “it can be very soothing,” he said. “It’s you and your material,” heating up the metal until it turns cherry-red, then introducing high-flow oxygen to start the welding process. Looking at your finished work, it’s that feeling of having built something from scratch.
“I felt like this is my career,” Robinson, 26, recalled thinking when he interviewed for a spot in the program earlier this year. “I can look forward to retiring here.”
Philly Shipyard has been coming back to life as contracts for national security multi-mission vessels, first announced in spring 2020, filled the company’s bare order books. The average cost for each ship runs about $300 million. So far, the shipyard is set to build four training ships for state maritime academies. Then in late April the company won a $720,000 grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration to support an apprenticeship program.
The training academy facility opened its doors in May to the first class of apprentices — a dozen of them — since the last group completed the three-year program in early 2018.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) congratulated staff Wednesday on the turnaround from when the shipyard’s prospects were in doubt.
“Now ships are getting built, workers are on the job, and the next generation of workers are getting trained, and getting on the job experience,” Toomey said during a visit Wednesday to the training facility. “They’ll have a tremendously valuable set of skills that will last them for their entire career.”
“There’s going to be a lot of work for years to come,” Toomey said.
More than 400 employees are back to work at the shipyard, up from about 200 in January. The company told The Inquirer earlier this year that it aims to employ nearly 1,400 in 2022.
The apprentices are paid employees from the first day, with retirement benefits and time off. They’ll get 6,000 hours of on-the-job training and more than 500 hours of technical training through Delaware County Community College. After graduation, the apprentices will have earned Journey-worker status, along with 22 credits toward an associate’s degree at the community college.
“This is my first and only job where I even had the option for benefits,” said Robinson, who had previously transported vehicles for rental car companies. Last year he enrolled in an introductory welding course at All-State Career School in Essington, Pa., which is also how he learned of the shipyard’s training program.
The 12 members of the new class range in age from 18 to mid-40s, and were selected from 150 applicants. The shipyard plans to bring in two more classes of apprentices this year. “We’re looking at four classes for 2022 and another four classes for 2023,” said Michael Giantomaso, the shipyard’s vice president of human relations.
The shipyard is hosting an on-site career fair on June 19, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. A spokesperson said more information on the fair will be available through the shipyard’s website.
More than 300 people have completed the apprenticeship program since 2004.
Tony DeLeon, 40, started the program in January 2008. He’d owned a pizza shop for five years and found it grueling. He was never home. One of his delivery drivers was an apprentice at the shipyard and DeLeon decided to apply.
“I had zero experience with welding,” he said. “Zero.”
He recalled being struck by the industrial space, huge and overwhelming. “And the company just did a great job making us feel comfortable and giving us all the tools we needed,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon climbed the ladder to become a foreman. Even after getting laid off in 2018, when the shipyard was running out of ships to build, he returned in January 2020 when the shipyard called him back for repair work.
“I’m excited to build the future here, and we want good people who want to do the same thing,” he said.