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Shipyard courts former IP workers

Gary Griggs counted himself lucky when he was able to find a job at International Paper Co.’s Franklin sawmill after his second layoff from the ATC Panels particleboard mill.

Then came May 2009, when IP closed the sawmill. Griggs struggled over the next few months to find work.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” the Zuni resident said. “I would’ve never thought that someone with over 20 years of mechanical experience would have trouble finding a job.”

After a 10-month job search, Griggs started at Northrop Grumman’s Newport News shipyard in April doing mechanical work.

“Blessed and relieved,” is how Griggs described his feelings when he was hired.

He isn’t alone. When IP announced its decision to close the Franklin paper mill this spring, Northrop Grumman officials recognized early on that IP workers would be “a good fit” at the shipyard, according to Staffing Director George Decker.

He said Thursday more than 100 former IP workers are already employed at the shipyard.

After the closure was announced, Northrop Grumman built a presence at the mill and participated in several job fairs to recruit workers. A job fair at Paul D. Camp Community College is how Griggs learned of openings at the shipyard.

“It’s regrettable that the paper mill closed, because that was the bread and butter for a lot more people than we’ve hired,” Decker said. “But we know when we come in there that we’re going to get people who recognize the value of work and have a very strong urge to contribute.”

The shipyard, which employs about 20,000 people, is now averaging about 135,000 applications a year, Decker said. Former IP workers’ skills haven’t gone unnoticed by shipyard recruiters, who started tracking those attending job fairs.

“Our challenge is to go out and find the best people for this company,” he said.

The former IP workers hired at the shipyard represent only a fraction of the hundreds of employees that have been hired this year, Decker said.

Charles Carr of Windsor worked his last day in the fiber recycling division at the Franklin paper mill on April 30.

“It was devastating,” he said of the announcement that his employer of nearly 16 years was closing. “I had every intention of retiring from the company.”

Carr found out about openings at the shipyard at an informational meeting at the mill. He was hired by Northrop Grumman in May and started working in June. The pay, he said, is comparable to IP.

He now does mechanical maintenance work at the shipyard.

“It’s a good fit for them and me too,” Carr said. “I’m real happy to be here.”

Decker said he and other Northrop Grumman officials toured IP’s Franklin mill to become familiar with the type of work the employees did and to see how they could possibly transition to jobs at the shipyard.

“In some cases, it was a fairly substantial match,” he said. Even if the work wasn’t “a precise match,” Decker said, the workforce was “highly trainable.”

“We’ve been very successful in working with the employees over there, and we continue to do that today,” Decker said.

Griggs and Carr said shipyard employees have been very accommodating as they transition into their new jobs.

“It’s a big place over here,” Carr said. “A whole lot bigger than where we came from…a lot more people and a lot more places.”

The daily commute is a little longer, but Carr and Griggs are just thankful to have jobs.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Griggs said. “If it was any better I couldn’t stand it.”

Griggs recently got a phone call from a former coworker from ATC Panels. He’s starting at the shipyard in August.

“I wish there were more companies that would take the time to try to put these people back to work,” Griggs said. “I wish our government would step up a little bit and make it harder for a lot these companies to move overseas like they’re doing…we need to put America back to work.”