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STEM Engagement With a Shipbuilding Focus

Mary McDermott, a Newport News Shipbuilding engineering manager, assists a student with creating an LED butterfly as part of the GEMS program.

Mary McDermott, a Newport News Shipbuilding engineering manager, assists a student with creating an LED butterfly as part of the GEMS program.

by Allie Bidwell, Education reporter for U.S. News & World Report

Women in shipbuilding show girls how to love engineering with potato batteries and butterflies.

Ask an engineering student what an ideal job would be and he or she will likely say working for a company like NASA, Google or Boeing.

But an overlooked area with the full gamut of opportunities for engineers – from system design to construction support and research and development – also exists within the shipbuilding industry.

“That is the beauty and the allure of the shipbuilding business,” says Jennifer Boykin, vice president of engineering and design for Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. “Whether you’re in research and development, or you’re in design, or you’re part of the test engineering program, you’re really part of designing and building the most complex products on the earth: nuclear powered ships.”

In 2012, military shipbuilding accounted for more than 60 percent of all industry revenues, while commercial shipbuilding made up another 22 percent, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation. The art of shipbuilding is much more technologically evolved than it was several decades ago: Newport News Shipbuilding is in the process of designing and building the first of the ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Boykin says, and one that will incorporate new technologies that have been invented since the existing aircraft carriers were built more than two decades ago.

“I believe it’s really unparalleled from a standpoint of the dream engineering job,” Boykin says.

Like many other fields focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, those in the shipbuilding industry are also looking to engage the next generation of workers. Because shipyards typically work on long-term contracts, they’re somewhat protected from the widespread worker shortages in related STEM fields that grab headlines, Boykin says.

Overall, employment in the commercial shipbuilding industry has held relatively steady over the last decade. As of 2012, just more than 98,000 individuals were employed in the industry, slightly down from a peak of 104,435 in 2008, according to a 2013 report from the Maritime Administration.  READ MORE