In 2017, a representative of Newport News Shipbuilding and an Old Dominion University professor of engineering started talking about the need for a professional development program for shipyard engineers.
The company and University already had partnerships to help employees earn their degrees. But Rob Gies '90, deputy chief engineer at HII-NNS, and Resit Unal, professor of engineering management and systems engineering, saw a need for a certificate program in engineering systems. They set out to design supplemental training for engineers, but their interdisciplinary program ultimately attracted participants from across the company who wanted to improve their knowledge of the industry.
On May 12, ODU Peninsula hosted a celebration recognizing the 54 graduates from HII-NNS who have completed the Certificate in Engineering Systems and Industrial Engineering since its launch in 2020. The program is offered through ODU's School of Continuing Education and demonstrates the University's commitment to training workers for the region's most in-demand jobs.
"It is important that the School of Continuing Education (SoCE) is able to offer customized training to meet the needs of large employers such as HII-NNS to assist in creating a highly qualified and capable Hampton Roads workforce," said Deborah Avans, business programs manager for SoCE.
In addition, the training reinforces ODU as a resource for engineering research to an employer with thousands of engineers among its more than 25,000 employees.
"If they need to research a problem, they come to us," Unal said. "Newport News Shipbuilding is a huge part of the community, and ODU should be connected to this community."
Participants committed to three-hour courses on Tuesday nights for seven weeks. The six courses covered cost engineering; system assessment and quality; decision-making analysis; advanced manufacturing; engineering complex systems; and project design and evaluation.
The program launched just before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the classes online, and the first cohort marked its completion with a drive-through ceremony. But members of all three cohorts came to the certification completion ceremony at ODU Peninsula, celebrating their achievement with their families, colleagues and mini Bundt cakes.
The course gave participants new tools to enhance their careers in shipbuilding, but also provided credits they can apply toward master's degrees in engineering at ODU. The program serves as "a big advertisement" for ODU's master's programs in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, engineering management and systems engineering, Unal said.
The certificate was designed to address areas where HII-NNS hopes to grow and improve. To pursue certification, employees had to request approval from their supervisors. The shipyard funded their classes.
"This curriculum brings people together from different aspects of our business to connect the dots," said Eric Wishon, a graduate of the first cohort and director of contracts and pricing at HII-NNS. "Our company, and our nation, needs people with those types of skills."
The program's participants mirrored the strong family traditions of HII-NNS; the cohorts included parents and children alongside husbands and wives. Brennan Bowman, a lead test engineer in nuclear engineering, decided to take the course with his father, Jeffrey Bowman, who works in contracts and pricing. They thought it was something special they could do together to advance their careers.
"It definitely broadened your horizons to different concepts and principles you can apply," Brennan said.
"After the last class, I emailed my supervisors to let them know I had completed the program and one said, 'Good - knowledge is power,'" Jeffrey added.
Spouses Chris and Lexi Znosko decided to complete the course together. Both have seen a positive impact on their work. Chris, a lead waterfront engineer for New Construction Carriers in the surface preparation and treatment department, said the classes gave him "other ways to look at quality, cost, decision-making, project management, manufacturing and complex systems." He believes the program will help him make more conscious decisions about quality and cost.
Lexi, a production planner and scheduler for Virginia Class Submarines in the structural planning group, only spent six months on the job before the pandemic. She found the program helped her make connections while working from home. "This program gave me the opportunity to not only learn the topics discussed in class, but to hear real-life examples from individuals in other departments throughout the shipyard," she said. She notes learning different project management strategies has allowed her to contribute in a new way.
Signing up for additional coursework signaled to supervisors that participants were committed, Wishon said, adding they displayed "initiative, curiosity, lifelong learning and imagination."
The program has surpassed the original vision, Gies said, by creating a training program to help employees accelerate their careers. Gies, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at ODU, said approximately 15% of participants have expressed interest in pursuing their master's degrees. From there, career prospects could greatly improve, Unal said.
"This opens the door for a master's degree for these employees, and getting a master's degree in all of these fields will definitely enable them to do a better job for the company and for themselves, too," he said.