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Work at a Virginia shipyard is all in the family

Olivia Neville said she knew from her dad's experience that working at the shipyard was a good place to work.
Credit: wvec

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Olivia Neville still remembers the time her father, Richard, was in the kitchen wrestling with the lid of a spice container when:

"All of a sudden, he said, 'I've got an idea for work,' and picked up the phone to call it in," she said.

While the Newport News Shipbuilding engineer can't always talk much about what he does — although the family enjoys tales of trips to the Bahamas and Alaska to work on ships — Olivia said it's hard to miss his enthusiasm for what he does.

She just graduated from the College of William & Mary, thanks in part to one of the 750 scholarships awarded by the Huntington Ingalls Industries Scholarship Fund since the shipyard's parent company set it up in 2016. The fund's scholarship awards total more than $2 million; it is funded primarily by HII President and CEO Mike Petters' decision to decline his annual salary, all but for $1.

Ten recipients have gone on to work for HII, either at the Newport News shipyard, the company's Mississippi shipyard or its fast-growing Technical Solutions Division.

Olivia Neville knew early on that she wanted to work at the shipyard — even though she figured her experience with high school physics suggested she shouldn't follow her dad's hints about an engineering career.

RELATED: Mask requirements eased at Newport News Shipbuilding, and for Department of Defense employees

"I knew from my dad it was a good place to work," she said.

Richard Neville's high school physics teacher got him started on what is now a 35-year career at the shipyard. That teacher introduced his student to a shipyard official; Richard kept the man's business card and, graduating a few years later with an engineering degree from North Carolina State, gave him a call.

Family or community connections are often the way the shipyard's multi-generation employees arrive — shipyard president Jennifer Boykin has said she's proud that there are fourth-generation shipyard workers.

And Richard Neville is excited that Olivia won't be the only member of his family working at the yard. His son Philip is on track for a job in one of the yard's many skilled trades, he said.

Olivia, who earned 65 college credits as a high school student through dual enrollment courses at Richard Bland College, is the third of Richard and Helen Neville's seven children to earn an HII scholarship. Her older sister, Susan, is a nurse, and brother Andrew studied business, as she did.

She's been working a co-op job in the yard's contract and pricing section — a unit her dad said he learned is one of the most important at the shipyard from his early days working as a designer for the Seawolf submarine and the DDG-1000 destroyer.

"They're the ones who make what we do possible," he said. Some of the people he met are senior staff in Olivia's department now.

These days, he brings his training and years of experience working on acoustics and vibration in ships to the shipyard's waterfront engineering team, working side-by-side with technicians and trades employees.

"Yes, we do listen to ships with stethoscopes," he said. "Not like your doctor's, though."

What he hears — and with one experimental digital system can see with the vibrations that the system's sensors reveal — can diagnose potential faults with carrier and submarine engines and mechanical systems.

"After 35 years, there's still always something new, something to learn," he said.

It was, in fact, something he sensed when opening that spice container, that helped him figure out a mysterious vibration that had until then stumped him and his team.

"When I tell that story to people who know my dad," Olivia said. "They all say: 'Yeah, that's Richard.'"