Published February 03. 2013 4:00AM Updated February 04. 2013 1:46PM
So many Electric Boat employees lost their jobs in the 1990s after the Defense Department canceled the Seawolf submarine program that layoffs only made the front page if more than 1,000 people went at once.
The aftereffects of the Pentagon's decision to slash two dozen Seawolf submarines from the budget at the end of the Cold War still reverberate in the EB workforce 20 years later.
Most of the nearly 12,000 employees - compared to 21,500 in 1991 - are either at the end or the beginning of their careers.
"Across all of the different groups at Electric Boat, we lost a generation there as the workload declined and people went home, either by choice or because we didn't have work for them," said Robert Nardone, EB's vice president of human resources. "We have that gap, and you can't just rebuild that overnight. It takes time."
Many senior employees are retiring or are at the age where they could. Hundreds of young people are joining the company each year. With no time to waste and no room for error in the sub business, EB is changing the way its employees share knowledge so none will be lost and so it is passed down in a way that makes sense for a new generation.
"The way we deliver information has to change to the new hire, or the less-experienced people," Nardone said. "How we expose them to the product has to change."
Someone new to the company a generation ago could learn about the stages of submarine construction by walking around the yard and seeing ships in different stages. Now that the Navy orders far fewer submarines, that's not the case.
Today's designers would have to work at EB for 20 years to see the design of a submarine from start to finish. The company's manuals explain how to build a submarine, but not always why EB builds submarines the way it does.
Today's new hires learn by questioning people who have been at the company longer, who have seen it and done it. It's a "people-intense business," Nardone said. At least 300 people have worked at EB for more than 40 years, 21 have celebrated their 50th anniversary and 10 more will reach that milestone if they stay at the company this year.
EB is building one of the most - if not the most - complex products in the world, said Laura Smith, the director for combat and weapon systems. Lives are at risk if it's not done right. So too, is EB's reputation for delivering submarines on time and under budget.
"We've lost that mid-level of leadership and we have to accelerate the learning of the younger engineers and designers coming in," Smith said. "That's really forcing us to think about the ways people do learn and become a better learning organization."
Formal, informal training
The engineering and design side of the business is where EB has hired the most in recent years because the Navy awarded the shipyard billions of dollars to design a new class of ballistic-missile submarines to replace the Ohio-class boats.
EB will need to hire in the trades next to build the ballistic-missile submarines. The workforce will peak at about 16,000 in the 2020s when construction is under way.
Now, 53 percent of the engineers and 30 percent of the designers have less than five years of experience.
"Maybe 10 years ago I was the youngest guy in the group, and I was over 40," said Peter Larkin, an engineering supervisor who has been at EB for nearly 30 years. "The discussions among the staff were, 'This has got to change. At some point we've got to leave.'"
Larkin said he tells the new engineers their job is to pick up the torch.
Andrew Glazzard, 24, and Annie Daniel, 25, two of the new engineers at the company's New London campus, each were assigned a mentor on their first day. Other employees act as informal mentors and explain tasks that were under way when the newcomers were hired.
"We're taking on a problem in the middle of solving it," said Glazzard, of Providence, who started work a year ago. "It's hard to understand the beginnings when we weren't there to witness it."
Senior engineers hold special classes to teach their expertise and submariners visit to give talks on why EB's work is important. Retirees have been hired back temporarily to help.
Managers bring junior employees to meetings to observe, then send them to the next meeting on their own. They put them in charge of presentations to the Navy. One department is uploading more documents to the internal website so new employees can find everything they need in one place.
Formal training is still essential, but nothing compares to what a junior person can learn each day by sitting next to someone more senior, said Daniel Panosky, the director of naval architecture and structural engineering.
"We have a workforce that takes a lot of pride in what they do and there's an incredible willingness to share what they know with someone else," he said, adding that at other companies, employees sometimes keep what they know to themselves to protect their standing.
Daniel, of Potomac, Md., rotates among the departments to learn about all of the aspects of the business. In the past, junior employees knew far less about the inner workings of the company.
Larkin said there's a recognition that even new employees need to have a broad perspective. And, he said, with the ballistic-missile submarine design - a large program with a broad base of work - there are more opportunities to bring in even the most junior designers and engineers and teach them.
Email vs. open door
People hired today learn differently, use technology differently and communicate differently than those hired even a decade ago, Nardone said.
They text when they are going to be late to work. They're quick to email their supervisors with questions and use EB's internal instant messaging system.
The average age of all employees is in the mid- to high 40s, with an average of 17 to 18 years of experience. The average age of people who were hired last year is 27.
EB will need to hire 500 people per year through 2020 to replace workers who retire or leave.
Glazzard said if he emails a manager, it could take a day or two to get an answer. If he emails a peer, the turnaround is much quicker.
Daniel said when she has a question, it's convenient to send a message and keep on working.
It could be that the managers are just busier, Glazzard and Daniel said, but they wondered whether any of them actually use instant messaging.
"They're probably not used to using it," Glazzard said.
Larkin, 52, said he logs off the instant messaging system because otherwise a green light shows up by his name. It implies, "Disturb me," he said. His door is open if he's free.
Larkin's mentor, Al Malchiodi, used the Socratic method of teaching in the early 1980s, challenging him with a series of questions. Larkin's goal was to get through three of the questions without having to say, "I'll get back to you." You can't teach that way in small bursts, he said.
Chris Hoddinott, another engineering supervisor, said he has noticed that the new employees sometimes get frustrated if they can't find something online quickly, or if they can't use a tool they had in college because EB doesn't have it or doesn't use it for security reasons.
Despite any generational differences, knowledge will get from the people on the far right side of the bell curve to the far left to fill in the middle, Larkin and Hoddinott said. And, they said, new ideas and questions from the employees - on the left - are forcing those on the right to think about whether their methods are still the best way.
"It's a very cautious industry," Hoddinott said. "We wait until things are tried and proven. They're coming out of college and they'll try anything."
EB's efforts to train a new generation of designers and engineers can't afford to fail, Larkin said. Every day submariners are at sea in a small tube, with volatile chemicals, explosives and a nuclear reactor, he added.
"We're not teaching anyone engineering," Larkin said. "But we are teaching them why we do things a certain way, why we check and double check. It's a culture. It's how we do it."