USS Idaho Submarine Christened Amid Unprecedented Demand for Workers

Thu Apr 4th, 2024

The Day | By Elizabeth Regan

Published March 18, 2024 at 9:24am ET

GROTON — As a bottle of sparkling water broke against the hull of the USS Idaho, submarine test mechanic Spencer Holzschlag stood at the sail atop the massive ship to drown out the celebratory clink with the blast of a whistle that reverberated through the shipbuilding hangar for 10 deafening seconds.

It was the christening of the 26th submarine in the Virginia class of nuclear powered, fast-attack submarines. The Idaho, named for an unlikely hotspot in the world of maritime nuclear research and training, is the 13th in the class built at Electric Boat as part of a collaboration with Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

The opportunity to participate in the pomp and circumstance was a perk of the job for Holzschlag, whose responsibilities revolve around making sure things work so the ship can soon float off. The Montville resident is among more than 22,500 employees in Connecticut and Rhode Island, with an additional 5,000 hires expected by the end of the year.

About a dozen dignitaries lined the dais in front of the submarine to praise the industry for creating a ship worthy of the Navy crew that stood in formation to their right.

Ship sponsor Teresa Stackley, of Maryland, said a lot has changed since her father walked the deck plates as an employee of Electric Boat during a widespread career devoted to naval design. But she added the 125-year-old company's "expert craftsmanship and dedication" remains the same.

Stackley is married to former assistant secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley, with whom she spent almost 40 years at duty stations from California to Maine.

"In the name of the United States, I christen thee Idaho," she said before the glass flew and the whistle blew. "May God bless her, and all that sail in her."

Electric Boat President Kevin Graney said the christening marks the "pressure hull complete" stage of construction, which signifies the final section has been welded to the rest of the ship with weaponry and control modules in the bow.

"Our job, and every member of my team, is to ensure our sailors get every unfair advantage we can load into a boat," he said.

Interior construction, testing, dockside trials and sea trials must occur before the submarine can be delivered to the Navy.

A timeline from the USS Idaho Commissioning Committee, an Idaho-based nonprofit established to help support the project, estimated the submarine could be commissioned by spring of next year.

Bryan Caccavale, vice president of Navy programs at Newport News Shipbuilding, described a situation in Virginia that mirrors the one in this state as the companies struggle to find workers.

"Our nation's shipbuilding demand is higher than it's been in four decades," he said. "At the same time, the number of Americans employed in manufacturing is down more than 30% compared to where it stood 40 years ago."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D- 2nd District, said demand for submarines exceeds levels experienced during the World War II period and the Cold War.

He pointed to the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a program of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, that has become a national model for recruiting unemployed or underemployed workers who don't necessarily have experience in the field.

"This renaissance of the metal trades is also happening at our trade schools and even regular comprehensive high schools, so that high school grads can literally go to work in the shipyard as soon as they receive their high school diploma," he said.

Production of the Virginia class submarines represents 38% of Electric Boat's business, according to the company. The largest source of revenue, at 44%, comes from the Columbia class ballistic missile program that currently represents the country's top strategic defense priority.

The Biden administration's $895 billion defense budget for 2025 eliminates funding for one of two Virginia-class submarines contained in previous budgets.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in his remarks emphasized recruiting workers requires "constancy and continuity" in the nation's shipbuilding program.

"So let me be very blunt: Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to two submarines in the Virginia class every year," he said. "And reducing that number sends the wrong message not only to those shipbuilders, but to the world."

Idaho desert

Idaho Gov. Brad Little said the crew of the submarine once it is commissioned will benefit from history of underseas research and training in his state and the skilled workers in Connecticut and Virginia.

"It means that they will be safe, and that America will continue to be the biggest, badass warrior in the world," he said.

Idaho is known for the 890-acre U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory and some of the most important nuclear energy advancements in the world that have occurred there, according to the Associated Press.

One of those breakthroughs was the prototype for the nuclear propulsion system that came to be used in the USS Nautilus, the nation's first nuclear powered submarine. Construction on the ship began in 1952 at Electric Boat.

The Idaho National Laboratory is also known as the site of the only fatal nuclear accident in the nation's history after three operators were killed in the steam explosion and meltdown of an experimental reactor.

Little said the USS Idaho's nuclear fuel core upon decommissioning will be "stabilized in perpetuity" in the same desert where the national laboratory resides.

Part of history

After the ceremony, three-year Electric Boat employee Lisa Giassi of Pawtucket, R.I., was struck by the enormity of the day's event and the global significance of the locally produced submarine.

Giassi works in the warehouse picking parts large and small to be processed and distributed. She operates a forklift for bulk orders; for smaller parts — ranging from light switches to studs to micro screws — she gets on a larger machine designed to navigate narrow aisles with shelves rising 45-feet high.

"You name it, I pick it," she said.

She cited a sense of accomplishment in knowing she had a hand in something so powerful.

She gestured to the USS Idaho behind her.

"We helped build it," she said. "We're part of this: We're part of EB, we're part of Groton, we're part of history."


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USS Idaho Submarine Christened Amid Unprecedented Demand for Workers

Spectators gather to observe a christening of the pre-commissioning unit (PCU) Idaho (SSN 799) during a ceremony at General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard facility in Groton, Conn., March 16, 2024. (Joshua Karsten/U.S. Navy)