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Virginia’s largest industrial employer has embraced an agile and responsive approach to balancing its operations and keeping its workers and community safe. Discover how you might be able to replicate their plans and protocols and then return here to submit any questions you’d like answered.

Xavier will be in the forum starting at 1 PM on Friday, May 22.
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Bob McKenna
Xavier, Thanks for joining us today. We appreciate your expertise as VP of Trades for the Commonwealth's largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding. Can you tell us a little about your background and also I understand that NNS is a family affair for you. Please comment on that also.
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Xavier Beale

Bob, thanks and I’m happy to be here today to join in this timely discussion. Yes, Shipbuilding is a family affair and I know it well. I’m a second generation shipbuilder. In fact, my father remains employed with the company after more than 44 years. My father-in-law retired earlier this year with more than 46 years of service. And last but not least, my wife is also a shipbuilder. We are indeed a shipbuilding family!

I began my career in shipbuilding as a pipe fitter. I truly enjoyed the opportunity but left the company to pursue my educational goals. After returning nearly a decade later, I’ve been honored to hold multiple leadership positions with human resources. Prior to my current appointment, I served as Director of Human Resources.

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Bob McKenna

With so many employees, I’m sure getting everyone informed and have them buy in was a challenge. You mention how important clear and consistent communication has been in that regard, but what are some other ways you’ve been able to ensure your employees understand and follow the safety protocols in place?

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Xavier Beale

In addition to establishing our COVID-19 information website, Facebook posts, informational videos and internal communications, we’ve found that one our most effective tools is authentic leadership. From frontline leaders to senior staff, our leadership message has remained consistent – we are committed to our employees’ safety first. Following our president, Jennifer Boykin’s lead, all leaders consistently reinforce the “why” behind our actions and openly welcome ideas from all our employees.

 Even in a division as large as the Trades division that I lead (nearly 12,000), during the weekend of March 28th each leader committed to contacting every member of their team to perform a wellness check. The purpose of the weekend call was not to persuade employees to return to work but to check on their and their families’ well-being. Throughout this pandemic, our senior staff has continued to visit the ships, shops and waterfront areas were our employees perform their mission-essential work. As a leader, being visible, approachable, empathic and demonstrating resolve are key to calming fears and aligning the workforce during these unprecedented times.

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Bob McKenna

You touched on this in the previous answer, but to take it a little deeper, so much of the conversation on the national and even local level has revolved around reopening and getting back to work, but we’re also starting to see more clearly the toll this pandemic is taking on our mental and emotional health. How have you been able to support employees in that regard?

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Erika Marsillac emarsill
Thanks for contributing Xavier! 
Those practices were vital to built on and grow trust in each other and NNS.  What do you see as your biggest challenge moving forward?
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Xavier Beale

Sure, at HII and NNS, we were committed to the total wellness of our workforce far in advance of COVID-19. Our commitment to total wellness focuses on a healthy body, heathy mind and healthy wallet. We recognize that physical, mental, and financial wellness are paramount to employee and organizational wellness. Our HERO (HII Employee’s Reach Out) program offers 24-hour free and confidential services and counseling to all employees and their dependents and household members. HERO offers help for coping with anxiety, working from home, adjusting to children’s at-home schooling and more. We have also increased mental health awareness efforts as we all battle this pandemic.

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Xavier Beale

One thing has remained true throughout this pandemic, change is evident. Therefore, communication and agility will remain key as we go forward. Persistence will also be important. Shipbuilding remains the same at its core but many of the safety practices we’ve implemented have changed how our employees engage. And, while the shipbuilders have responded well, their fortitude may be tested as this virus may be with us for some time.

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Bob McKenna

There have been a number of confirmed cases at the shipyard. Can you talk about how you handled those instances? What kinds of communications and protocols did you put in place to inform employees and perform contact tracing?

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Bob McKenna
emarsill, Did you see Xavier's answer to your question?
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Xavier Beale

We’ve implemented formalized processes that are led by our Medical Director and Environmental Health and Safety organization. We perform expedient but detailed contact tracing to identify anyone that may have been exposed to an infected person and quickly disposition them as needing to be quarantined or not. We also perform thorough sanitization of potentially infected areas. However, based on our shipbuilder’s commitment to social distancing, good personal hygiene and wearing of face masks, we’ve seen a significant decrease in self-quarantines as a result of contact tracing.

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Erika Marsillac emarsill

One thing has remained true throughout this pandemic, change is evident. Therefore, communication and agility will remain key as we go forward. Persistence will also be important. Shipbuilding remains the same at its core but many of the safety practices we’ve implemented have changed how our employees engage. And, while the shipbuilders have responded well, their fortitude may be tested as this virus may be with us for some time.



Thanks for the insight Xavier.  In addition to the work you're doing with the shipbuilders, do you anticipate NNS working with its suppliers to share the safety protocols that have worked for you, or is that something NNS already does?    
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Bob McKenna
  

Thanks, excellent answer. And good lessons learned for employers/businesses in the advanced manufacturing business obviously. Newport News Shipbuilding is such a large operation, so if I could, I’d like to ask you to put your small business owner cap on for a second. If I own a business with 25 or 50 employees, what are some practical things I can take from your experiences and put into practice for myself?

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Xavier Beale

emarsill, we are in this battle together as a shipbuilding industry, community, nation and as humanity. To that end, we frequently collaborate and share best practices with our suppliers, customers and community. We are always happy to help and learn!

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Amy Jordan ajordan
Xavier, Happy National Maritime Day!  As NNSB works to grow the fleet and the team, what impact has COVID had on hiring and job training and what solutions has HII and NNSB put in place to help address these issues?
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Xavier Beale

Bob, regardless of the size or an organization or available resources, there are key things that any employer can do to protect their employees, while maintaining business continuity.

    1. Make every decision with the safety of your people first
    2. Remain empathetic and be open to employee feedback
    3. Explain the why behind decisions…this builds trust
    4. Remain vigilant and non-compromising with efforts that are proven to reduce the spread of the virus (i.e. social distancing and face masks)
    5. Trust the science and guidance provided by the technical experts (e.g. CDC) and be willing to adapt accordingly

 

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Xavier Beale

Amy, great question! Employee and applicant safety was our first priority as we began to navigate our way through COVID, which led to us temporarily suspending talent acquisition activities, that required candidates to physically access our facility. However, we migrated to a virtual environment to ensure our pipelines remained healthy. We’ve since resumed all talent acquisition and training activities, while maintaining our safe workplace practices (e.g. social distancing, face coverings, etc.). This has led to reduced orientation and training class size but allows us to continue to on-board and train talented shipbuilders.

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Bob McKenna
Thanks for joining us today, Xavier. We know how busy your schedule must be. Your answers were great. Lots of good takeaways, and one thing comes through loud and clear: good leadership is absolutely critical in good times and, even more so, in crises. NNS is a great example of that from Jennifer Boykin and other senior leadership, like yourself, on down. 
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