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November 27, 2023 2023 INNOVATORS ISSUE

2023 Innovator: Murphy leads Electric Boat’s ‘once-in-a- generation’ hiring spree

PHOTOS | STEVE LASCHEVER Courtney Murphy is in charge of overseeing a massive hiring spree at submarine maker Electric Boat, which is projected to add nearly 6,000 new employees this year.
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The sounds of growth are sweeping across southeast Connecticut and adjacent Rhode Island.

And the catalyst is Electric Boat, the submarine builder with assembly, design and maintenance facilities in Groton and New London, as well as module manufacturing facilities at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

Electric Boat — owned by publicly traded defense contractor General Dynamics, which reported $39.4 billion in revenue in 2022 — opened for business in Groton in 1899, and delivered its first submarine to the government a year later.

Across the next 123 years, the company and its host communities have been riding the roller coaster that is defense contracting.

But a change in strategy during the Obama years calls for construction of three nuclear submarines — two Virginia class and one of the new Columbia class ballistic missile boats — each year for the foreseeable future. The larger plan is for 70% of the country’s nuclear arsenal to be carried by submarines.

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That has set Electric Boat — and southeastern New England — on what’s being called a once-in-a-generation expansion.

Building a nuclear submarine is a long and complex task that can stretch to four or more years per unit. So, gearing up to produce three a year means adding infrastructure and manpower. Lots of both.

Over the past few years, nearly $2 billion of construction has altered the skyline of Groton and Quonset Point. Companywide employment has gone from 14,658 in 2016, to 21,335 this August. Included in the figures are maintenance operations in other locations, such as Honolulu, San Diego and Bremerton, Washington.

But that’s all been prelude, as contracts keep coming and hiring goals escalate.

This spring, a $22 billion deal for nine more Virginia class subs, and an additional Australian order for a handful more, promise good times will roll on throughout the next decade.

Success has many fathers, the saying goes. But in this case, the point person for Electric Boat’s workforce expansion is a proud single mother.

Meet Courtney Murphy, 42, director of talent acquisition, workforce development and compensation.

Growing up in East Lyme, she was acutely aware of Electric Boat. Both her grandfathers had worked there. Her parents met while working there.

When she went off to study computer science at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, her career plans were admittedly vague, but Electric Boat wasn’t much more than a comfortable place to do an internship.

As she tells recruits today, working at Electric Boat isn’t just a job, it’s a career.

That internship turned into a full-time job as a systems engineer. But it wasn’t the right fit for her, Murphy recalls.

Again, she found the truth of the pitch she now makes to recruits: There are many paths available at Electric Boat, and the company is eager to see everyone succeed and perform at the height of their abilities.

In Murphy’s case, that road led from systems engineer, through material finance, to three years in a rotational development program. She emerged as chief of human resources in 2008.

An MBA from Northeastern University helped propel her to two more promotions — as manager of human resources and director of workforce development — before she took on her current job this spring.

It’s a workforce development career path that parallels Electric Boat’s expansion, and she’s had a key role in developing an innovative strategy to fill the hiring needs.

But, as a single woman on the fast-track, there have been trade-offs.

“I never married and wanted to be a mom,” Murphy explains. “As I was getting older in terms of fertility, I decided to be a single mother by choice and do IVF. It’s been the best thing I ever did, and I absolutely love being a mom.” Her son is now 2 ½.

Her decision to take that road less traveled is consistent with her approach to hitting her target — a remarkable 5,750 hires this year.

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“We will be hiring around that rate for the next several years, and once we get to the peak demand, replacing for attrition will likely keep us hiring over 2,000 people each year,” Murphy said.

In a presentation to the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) last year, Electric Boat President Kevin Graney called it a “once-in-a-generation expansion,” and estimated the peak hiring point to be in 2033, with about 21,000 employees just in Connecticut.

Recruiting strategy

The unique nature of Electric Boat’s business colors its approach to hiring, Murphy said.

Many of its jobs require security clearance. Few people have experience in building submarines. And living in the smaller towns of southeast Connecticut — 99% of the workforce lives within 50 miles of Groton — appeals most to those who have experienced it.

The result is a recruiting approach that focuses on local hires and leans heavily on in-house training.

Still, Electric Boat needs subject experts. It’s a double win if they’re local. She points to the aggressive recruiting of UConn engineering graduates — 20% to 30% of whom are hired by Electric Boat.

Murphy’s college recruiting team is joined by volunteers from the company’s engineering department as it makes more than 50 campus recruiting stops across the country each year.

She also recognizes veteran submariners and other former service members are a fertile source of recruits. In addition to bringing valuable skills and experience, they bring an appreciation for Electric Boat’s unique national defense mission.

And that appreciation of mission is a strong indicator of retention, she said.

For many of the skilled trade jobs, Electric Boat relies on recruiting local entry-level talent and relying on its workforce development programs to train them in the unique task of building submarines.

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One of the most successful pipelines is run by the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board. Michael Nogelo, the board’s president and CEO, traces the program’s roots to 2015.

Electric Boat was coming to grips with the staffing needs that come with meeting the Navy’s goal of two submarines a year. The company helped the board win a federal grant to develop a Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative.

The result is a five- to 10-week course that Nogelo estimates can provide about 80% of the skills needed to succeed in any of the 10 target trades. The employer would supply the rest of the training that’s specific to the needs of the job.

That’s just what Electric Boat had in mind, and it also seems to work well for the almost 360 Connecticut suppliers that serve the submarine maker.

Nogelo credits Murphy’s role in the program’s success, and said she’s still involved in her new role as director. Her team meets with Nogelo’s staff weekly, and Murphy sits in at least quarterly.

The Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative is operating in 11 high schools in the board’s area, roughly the eastern third of the state. Other applicants come from American Job Centers programs that serve the unemployed and underemployed.

And employers make “reverse referrals” of candidates they like, but lack the required technical skills.

Since 2016, the pipeline initiative has placed about 4,000 individuals. About two-thirds of them were hired by Electric Boat; many of the others went to suppliers.

Its success earned the board a national award for innovation in workforce development.

Other workforce investment boards around the state have studied Eastern’s program and are eager to emulate the results.

Nogelo also points to the emphasis Murphy and Electric Boat have placed on diversity in hiring. Women with interest in technical fields have new access to jobs and to advancement into supervisory roles, he said.

In that presentation to the CBIA last year, Graney, the Electric Boat CEO, made much the same point, saying minority hiring has increased 11%, and women hold 16% of the senior-level jobs.

Regional impacts

The combination of infrastructure work, hiring, increased work for suppliers and at Electric Boat’s own facilities are sending a ripple through the region’s economy.

Tony Sheridan, who leads the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, sees the “dramatic impact” wherever he looks.

He points to the construction of apartments and condos going on across the Thames River valley. And the explosion of interest in opening small businesses.

In October, the chamber opened an innovation center — part incubator, part coworking space — in New London to help.

There’s also the arrival of Genesys Diagnostics, a blood-testing firm that’s taken over two buildings in New London. Sheridan welcomes the 50 or so new jobs and acknowledges the business acumen of betting on an uptick in employee drug testing in a high-security field.

The influx of young, educated, well-paid professionals spell an economic boom for the area, he notes.

But Sheridan also sees the potential challenges of another decade of accelerated growth. Parking has already become a problem in the region’s commercial areas. And the school districts are deep in discussions of how they’ll handle the expected influx of school-age children.

He’d like to share the wealth a bit, pushing some of the growth toward New Haven and Hartford. But the key to that is improved transportation, including regional train service.

Talks are underway, he said, but it’s a solution that may not arrive until after the hiring wave has crested.

Those are issues for tomorrow. Today, the future looks bright for chamber members. And the economic ripples will be felt across the state.

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