Attrition: SurgeMain Overwhelmed


August 13, 2020: The U.S. Navy, already behind schedule in completing planned maintenance, repairs and new construction shipyard work at the start of the year, was hit with an unexpected problem in March. That was when the covid19 pandemic caused personnel problems because about a quarter of shipyard workers were not showing up for work. While the shipyard personnel are considered “essential workers” and allowed to continue working during the covid19 quarantine, they were not obliged to show up. Some had very real health concerns if they were older or had underlying health conditions which made a case of covid19 potentially fatal. Most of those who die from covid19 are elderly or have underlying health problems which makes covid19 fatal. Some 80 percent of the population simply do not get infected, just as with the annual influenza pandemic.

This was less of a problem in other commercial enterprises because replacement workers could be hired. The shipyards were different because most of the shipyard workers have special skills and qualified replacements are hard to find. There is also the problem with union contracts, which guarantees shipyard workers their jobs after the covid19 emergency has passed. This replacement workers would only be getting temporary work, although they would prove themselves qualified for future hiring. For decades the problem with hiring was a lack of skilled people available to hire. Because of all this, hiring temporary replacements means bringing in unskilled workers who can be trained for low skill jobs. Normally, some retirees could be persuaded to come back for an emergency but with the covid19 situation most retirees would be in danger of a fatal case of covid19 and are thus not available.

The navy did have a solution for this; the 2005 “SurgeMain” program where over 2,400 navy reservists were identified who had skills that could be used in the shipyards, where a lot of work was making major repairs on ships so the vessels can go back to sea. These are the kinds of repairs that the ship crew can handle but ships are brought into shipyards every few years so the many backlogged repairs can be done in less time because the ship is not at sea and most of the crew is not present.

In 2020 the SurgeMain program brought in 1,600 reservists but this only made up for about a quarter of the shortage. The labor shortage is also threatening some critical shipbuilding projects, like components for the new Colombia class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) where construction of the subs is to begin in 2021. Before that a lot of key components are being built and work on these items had been delayed by the worker shortage. As it is the reservists were told that they could on active duty for up to a year.

The navy is still working on calculating how much the labor shortage will delay ships getting back to sea or even built.


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