Shipbuilders-in-training in South Philly

Samantha Toggas, Temple graduate and apprentice welder, at the Philadelphia shipyard in front of the project tanker ship "American Freedom," the 27th ship built at the yard.

Samantha Toggas, 26, learned metalsmithing and soldering at Tyler School of Art. After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree, she took a detour and got trained in welding — a skill that has landed her in Philly Shipyard’s apprentice program.

Toggas is one of only two women in the current crop of 75 apprentices. She likes the steadiness and variety in welding, and plans to buy a house in South Kensington.

“I learn something new every day and work around guys who are like my family,” she said. She would like to see more women in shipbuilding careers. “They bring high school students here. I’ve seen a few girls, which is really cool, but there needs to be more. Talk to women, too, about these jobs, not just the guys. That needs to start in middle school and in high school.”

Patrick T. Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, tours the shipyard.

Toggas was introduced Tuesday to Patrick T. Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, who met with an apprentice class and then toured the shipyard.

“In workforce development, we’re looking at a variety of ways to develop the skills that businesses need for the future,” Harker said. “Here, they are going back to a tried-and-true method of bringing people into the workforce.”

The Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia has compiled an apprenticeship guide, which describes five apprenticeship programs in the region and aims to encourage more employers.

In 2004, what was then the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard began the apprenticeship program to ensure it had skilled workers to meet production needs. To date, 322 would-be shipbuilders have accepted apprentice spots — 140 are still with the company, including 14 supervisors and seven in the management ranks.

Nearly 12 percent of the shipyard’s 1,200 workers began as apprentices. “It’s the backbone of our recruiting the next generation of shipbuilders,” said CEO Steinar Nerbovik. The number would be higher, but in 2011 the nation’s second-largest commercial shipbuilder furloughed a couple hundred employees due to the economy and a downturn in shipping. Some apprentices took other jobs.

Apprentice welder Andrew Parlett welds a ground block rudder horn unit for ship 29.

The average age of the current apprentices is 30, with the oldest 38 and the youngest 19.

Classes of 10 each begin in January, April, and August. Recruits come through word of mouth, high school career and technical education programs, and trade schools. To qualify, applicants have to score well on a test in basic math, reading comprehension, problem-solving, measurement, and mechanical aptitude.

“The ones who score the highest get first pick,” said Mike Giantomaso, vice president of human resources. After an interview, background check, and drug and alcohol screening, they work 40 hours a week, are union members, earn $16.06 an hour or $33,400 a year, and get benefits, a pension, and time off.

John Beinlich, production foreman, and Samantha Toggas, apprentice welder, join the tour of the shipyard with the Philadelphia Fed chief.

John Beinlich, 35, was waiting tables in November 2006 when he heard about the apprentice program and called. “The lady at the desk said, ‘Yes, we are testing for apprentices. Come down.’ ”

Beinlich, from Ridley Park, began as a general apprentice in shipbuilding. Over the years, he moved up from a team leader in machinery installation to supervisor and now foreman. “I was a C student in high school, but I came here and got focused,” he said. While working, he earned an associate’s degree at Delaware County Community College and is considering a bachelor’s degree in leadership or construction management.

Apprentices spend three years learning to be welders, shipbuilders, pipe fitters (called outfitters), and machine operators. The company spends about $200,000 to train and pay each apprentice during the three years. “That’s the difficult part for a lot of companies. They just can’t absorb that cost,” Giantomaso said.

Information is available on the Philly Shipyard website,  www.phillyshipyard.com, where visitors can sign up to take the test. “Once we open up the testing, we will notify them,” Giantomaso said. Testing is usually once a year, and the next round will likely be in 2018, he said.