NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (AP) -- Submarine maker Electric Boat plans to double its workforce in Rhode Island to build a new class of submarines under a $95 billion Navy program, welcome news in the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate.
The workforce at the North Kingstown manufacturing plant could double by 2028 to about 6,000 people, said Sean Davies, the site's general manager. That is roughly the same number of employees who built submarines there at the peak of the Cold War.
Rhode Island's economy has struggled to rebound since the Great Recession. The state's unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, considerably above the national average of 6.3 percent.
The construction contract has not yet been awarded, but Electric Boat anticipates receiving it. The Groton, Connecticut-based manufacturer recently leased an additional 42 acres in the Quonset Business Park to expand. Davies said he is focused on ensuring the company's training programs can handle the influx of new hires because few job applicants have experience in the manufacturing trades. Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Virginia, employs more than 12,000 people, mainly in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Construction is expected to begin in 2021 on a class of 12 ballistic-missile submarines to replace the current Ohio-class boats. Electric Boat could hire more than 1,000 people in a single year at its manufacturing plant after construction is underway.
"We can't literally put all of our eggs in one basket, but without submarine construction here, we would be in a much worse economic situation, and we would have a much less hopeful outlook," said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island.
"That work is very, very significant," said Molly Donohue Magee, executive director of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance. "And it's not just for one year."
In the last four years, 2,000 people were hired by Electric Boat in Rhode Island largely because Congress approved building two attack submarines a year instead of one.
Davies said he wants to support the community by hiring Rhode Island residents to work on the new submarine, but it is has been challenging to find enough people with the necessary skills.
Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, said the state's unemployment rate has remained high and persistent because of its inadequately skilled workforce.
The New England Institute of Technology worked with Electric Boat to develop a curriculum for welders, and most of the graduates in the first class were hired at the shipyard, Davies said. The Community College of Rhode Island may start a similar program.
The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training is helping match the state's residents with open positions at Electric Boat. The monthly sessions, which began in April, are booked through November. Charles J. Fogarty, the department's director, said the program has helped start Rhode Island workers onto higher-paying and more meaningful careers.
"Electric Boat is one of Rhode Island's bellwether companies in one of our economy's most important sectors, and so our public-private partnership with EB is a vital one," he said.
The Connecticut Department of Labor partners with a community agency, the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, to offer orientation and online recruitment sessions at its Connecticut offices for job seekers who may be qualified for positions at Electric Boat's Rhode Island site.
A high school graduate with no experience can earn $35,000 to $40,000 a year as a welder at Electric Boat, according to the company. An experienced welder can make more than $60,000 a year with overtime. The workforce is not unionized at the Rhode Island site.
Brian Ferragamo, 31, of Coventry, worked as a pipefitter at Electric Boat from 2005 until he changed careers in 2011. He said he returned to the company in May because it has a good outlook, and he missed building submarines.
Robert Fenley, 35, of West Warwick, said he worked two jobs to support his wife and two children before he was hired as a pipefitter in June.
"It's more stable and it will be better for my family," he said. "There is not that much work in Rhode Island."