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When school started last month, two south Mississippi high schools and a school in Mobile, Alabama had something new to boast about: a state-of-the-art welding and machinery lab with equipment and gear hand-picked by Mississippi-based military shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII). The labs, which opened at Moss Point High School and Pascagoula High School in Mississippi and at Alma Bryant High School in Alabama, are the latest efforts by HII to invest in local schools and help build the qualified workforce they will need to meet an anticipated increase in hiring.

“Workforce development is key,” said George Jones, the vice president of operations for HII. “We can invest hundreds of millions of dollars into [our] plants, but if we don’t have the people, it’s all going to be for nothing.”

The new labs, which will be used by about 200 students across the three schools, have the same equipment and gear as the local HII plant and are designed to replicate the setting students would experience working at HII. Students will learn marine safety concepts from a curriculum addendum that was written and developed by expert HII staff members to include up-to-date information on the shipbuilding field. Teachers from each school visited the HII shipyards before the labs opened; each will have a mentor from the HII Shipyard to help with any instructional questions as they use the labs.

In Mississippi, shipbuilding is a steady industry that relies on a qualified workforce. HII is likely to need even more qualified workers soon: In February, it signed a $1.43 billion contract with the Navy.

A 2017 report found that people who work in shipbuilding and other fields related to production and manufacturing in south Mississippi earned wages that were 30 percent higher than the national average for those jobs.

Jones says the goal of the new labs is to give students the knowledge and skills needed to pass the entry-level employee exam at the end of high school and “have an advantage” when they start working. But he also sees the value in supporting local schools and students. “Educators… want the right thing for these students, and they just need industry’s help,” Jones said. “They just need a partner … so students can get employed and make a purpose in life.”

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