Q&A: Naval Architecture, Marine Engineering–Career Possibilities

Ingalls Shipbuilding designer Alexandra Dupuis with a wireframe diagram of a U.S. national security cutter.

A new Bankrate study ranks the most and least valuable college majors and discovered that two niche and little known majors top the list of 162 fields of study: naval architecture and marine engineering. They are followed closely by nuclear and electrical engineering.  

Many students may have little to no exposure to these career options and may dismiss them out of hand. But experts at Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), the largest military shipbuilder in the U.S. and regular employer of all four of these top professions, want students to take a closer look. 

Brian Blanchette, the director of technical and design engineering at Ingalls Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, aims to share his love for naval architecture and marine engineering with young people. He shared his thoughts on the profession and its possibilities with Sea Technology.

What do you think is preventing college students from studying naval architecture and marine engineering?

Naval architecture and marine engineering is a relatively small field, and only a few schools offer it as a major. Students may head off to college knowing they are interested in engineering but not yet decided upon which discipline. Unless they are at a school that offers NA&ME, they are effectively locked out of the field at that point. 

And there is not enough awareness about these areas. Many students are familiar with aerospace engineering but may not know about the nautical side of things. One of the great aspects of these careers is not only do you get to live near the water, but every ship is unique and brings new challenges with it, so that may differ from some engineering careers that are more production-line focused.

How do you propose stoking interest in these fields?

The first step is education and information, ensuring students understand that naval architecture and marine engineering is an option and that it’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in this area. 

There’s a digital transformation underway in shipbuilding, which promises revolutionary advances in quality, safety and efficiency. To be on the forefront of all these technological advancements is a unique and rare opportunity. Enhanced digital technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and data analytics are forever changing the way we design and build these ships and aircraft carriers and submarines, which are the nation’s most complex and sophisticated naval military vessels.

Another key component in raising awareness about these professions is through the companies that rely upon and employ naval architects and marine engineers. At HII’s Ingalls Shipyard, for example, we invite high-school students to visit us and to learn about these areas of expertise. In addition, our Employee Resource Groups conduct competitions and other fun activities to encourage student interest in these STEM fields. Promoting these professions in the media helps spread the word as well! 

What can those who major in these fields expect when they enter the job market–how easy/hard is it to get a job, what kinds of jobs are available, what are starting salaries like?

There is a great breadth of options available to NA&ME graduates, whether in support of commercial or military shipbuilding, in design or construction, in the government or private industry. Starting salaries are usually equal to or greater than other engineering majors. Graduate school is also an option, but you can get a good-paying, rewarding job with a four-year degree.

What kind of career trajectory can these students expect?

One of the best aspects of a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering is that you focus on the total system. As a result, it fosters a big-picture mindset. In my opinion, that prepares students to accept more breadth of responsibility, which opens doors to technical and project management career tracks. 

The field is also sufficiently rich that, if you are technically focused, you can specialize in very specific areas and pursue a purely technical or even research-focused career track. The fundamentals of the degree allow you to make those choices after you get into your career, so it offers a lot of potential options.

How did you become interested in naval architecture and marine engineering?

I grew up in Rhode Island, so I spent a lot of time near the water. When I was in school, Australia defeated the United States in the America’s Cup, and I thought at the time I wanted to design sailboats and bring the cup back to the States. 

Somebody beat me to that before I had a chance to go to college, but when I found out that naval architecture was an option, it seemed like the perfect fit. I knew I wanted something involving science and math, and the opportunity to apply that to designing boats and ships really appealed to me.

What has your career been like?

I have been at Ingalls Shipbuilding since graduating from the University of Michigan over 23 years ago. I have had one incredible opportunity after another, working in multiple departments. I’ve been a part of new ship design efforts, worked collaboratively with the Navy in Washington, D.C., been in the production environment, and even traveled the globe working in business development. 

At every step, I have been able to apply the combination of problem-solving skills of an engineering curriculum with the total system approach of a naval architecture and marine engineering degree.

What is most interesting about your current and previous jobs?

Working for a military shipbuilder is extremely fulfilling. Our facility itself could be the subject of a documentary special, and the ships we build are even more impressive. 

But, even more exciting than what we do is why we do it.  We all contribute to defending America’s freedom and freedom around the globe by giving our Navy and Coast Guard capable and survivable warships. We build them as though our own son or daughter could one day sail on that ship. It’s incredible to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And, of course, it’s thrilling to host presidents and first ladies and other well-known dignitaries when ships are christened.

What advice would you give students still seeking a major?

I highly recommend looking at a degree like naval architecture or any engineering field that is marketable right out of school. Problem solving is a skill that’s applicable to every aspect of life, no matter the person or the profession, and that’s a key component to engineering.

Also, it’s important to note that majoring in engineering does not preclude an appreciation for liberal arts. I had a boss tell me once that more great works of literature have been written, more beautiful works of art painted and more amazing musical pieces composed by engineers than there have been engineering marvels developed by literature, art or music majors.  That’s not to diminish any of those other majors but simply to point out that engineering offers a great deal of flexibility and unique opportunities. 

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