The Intersection

Mike Petters, Remarks as Prepared, for the Early Childhood Leadership Summit

June 25, 2019

Mike Petters, President & CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, provided the dinner keynote during the 2019 Early Childhood Leadership Summit. The following are his remarks, as prepared, which were first posted on the HI Industries website


Thank you, Laura (Fornash), for that introduction.

Thanks to the Hunt Institute and the Build Initiative for hosting this important event … And to all of you for participating.

Mike Petters

I’m glad to be back in Louisiana and especially in New Orleans. I went to LSU for a year before I was accepted into the Naval Academy, and one of our two daughters is a proud graduate of Tulane. She and her husband live here and are expecting their second child—our first grandson—in August.

Before I talk about early childhood education and why it’s so important to me, I want to tell you a little bit about Huntington Ingalls Industries. We are a Fortune 400 company, but unless you live near one of our shipyards in Virginia or Mississippi, you may not know much about us.

Our Newport News Shipbuilding division was founded 133 years ago. Today it designs, builds and maintains aircraft carriers and submarines for the United States Navy.

Our Ingalls Shipbuilding division is a little younger. It celebrated its 80thanniversary last year. Today it designs, builds and maintains amphibious ships and destroyers for the Navy and National Security Cutters for the United States Coast Guard.

We have a third division called Technical Solutions. It provides a wide range of professional services through its Fleet Support, Mission Driven Innovative Solutions, Nuclear & Environmental, and Oil & Gas groups. 

Even with that context, some of you may be wondering: Why is the CEO of a company that is engaged in these kinds of businesses interested early childhood education? Well, I think everyone should be interested, but I have three answers that are relevant to HII.

The first is workforce development. While Wall Street looks at HII as an aerospace and defense company, I view HII as a workforce development company. We employ more than 41,000 men and women in 42 states and 13 countries.

That includes 240 employees in Louisiana—just across the river in Avondale. Maintaining a workforce of that size requires us to invest in all parts of the workforce development pipeline, including the very beginning: early childhood education.

In fact, our company motto is “Hard Stuff Done Right.” It’s broad because we welcome all challenges—from nuclear shipbuilding to addressing a problem like early education.

My second answer is closely related to the first: We play the long game. At HII, we have what I would argue is the longest horizon of any company in the world. Right now, we have a 41 billion dollar backlog of work. That includes a contract for two aircraft carriers—the second of which will sail the seas until the 2080s.

Most companies don’t have the ability or the resources to step back and take a long view. They’ve got to survive this week … this month … this quarter.

That goes against who we are at HII—and who we have been for more than 130 years. 

The third answer is the most important and, frankly, the reason we should all be interested in early education: National security.

The ships that we build in Mississippi and Virginia represent the best of America in every way.

Think for a moment about the vision, the imagination, the technology, the skill, the will and the tens of millions of labor hours required to build Navy ships. Their hallowed purpose: never to sail on a mission of conquest, but always to keep the seas open and the world stable.

Our fleet represents our commitment to invest in, believe in and prepare for the national security future of America. This is the very commitment we need to make for the future of our children.

While the ships we design and build are engineering marvels, their power is not embedded in technology or weaponry. The power of our ships will come from the young men and women—average age of 19—who will take them around the world, wherever needed.

A few years ago, I heard the then-Secretary of the Navy talk about the service’s recruiting challenges. Look at the United States’ population between the ages 18 and 25, he said.

Then take away anyone without a high school diploma … Take away anyone with physical fitness issues …Take away anyone with a criminal record … What you’re left with is about 25 percent of the population.

That’s the “talent pool” from which the Navy and other services are recruiting.  When I heard that, I thought: That’s who I’m recruiting too. But it gets worse.

More recent Pentagon surveys actually put the number at 20 percent. One in five … That is a staggering indictment.

The Pentagon’s latest National Defense Strategy states that we are in a “near peer” competition with China and Russia. Think about going into a competition with only 20 percent of our capabilities to bear. That’s something we should ALL be concerned about.

Now take those odds to an elementary school classroom. Only one in five students will ultimately be employable. The other four will face challenges that, frankly, we all will pay for.

The fact is: We have fallen desperately behind in teaching our children the most basic skill: the love of learning. Study after study shows that the most powerful and cost-effective way to make our children lifelong learners is to start them on that path before school—when they are 2 or 3 or 4 years old.

Counter that with these data points from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD:

  • The United States ranks third from the bottom among 36 industrialized countries in preschool enrollment.
  • And we rank second to last in public expenditure on early childhood education as a percentage of gross domestic product.

That is why I feel so strongly that pre-K schooling is not only A solution … it is THE solution that can change the future for those students – and for our nation.

Last November, I was honored to participate in ReadyNation’s Global Business Summit on Early Childhood. ReadyNation, a part of the Council for a Strong America, promotes public policies and programs that build a stronger workforce and economy. Because its members—more than 2,000 business executives—know that early childhood education can predict a child’s success in the job market.

ReadyNation reports that:

  • Early childhood is a time when children acquire the foundation of many skills needed for 21st-century jobs, including both cognitive and character skills.
  • Children’s brains develop 1 million synapses every second. These are the critical connections that support learning and skills—every second. By age 3, a child’s brain has reached about 85 percent of its adult weight.
  • Disadvantaged children can start kindergarten as much as 18 months behind their peers. Many of these children never catch up and are at increased risk of dropping out of high school.

A large part of the problem is that public education—in most of the United States, at least—doesn’t begin until a child is 5, and some parents will even “red shirt” their children until they’re 6.

The OECD shows that only 91 percent of 5-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in school. That’s just below the OECD average of 95 percent.

But the data is even more alarming for 3- and 4-year-olds. In the U.S., only 38 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in a pre-school program. The OECD average is 75 percent.

And only 67 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in a pre-school program. The OECD average is 88 percent.

Translation: The rest of the world is starting to educate its children before we are. And much of the rest of the world is educating its children better than we are.

The problem only gets worse over time. Many of you may not know that children who are not reading at grade level by the third grade are lost.

At HII, we know that the earlier you can find and fix a problem in the value stream, the more successful you’ll be. The problem will also be more affordable to solve than if you find it at a later phase.

In our shipyards, we actually have what we call the “1-3-8 Rule.” Anything that costs 1 dollar to build in a shop will cost you 3 times that on the platen, which is above ground beside the dry dock, and 8 times that on the ship.

The same holds true for education.

Any educator will tell you that it’s much preferred—with a higher chance of success—to prevent problems at the beginning of a child’s education than in the middle or especially toward the end of secondary school. This is where the discussion shifts from strictly educational issues to socioeconomic ones—like cost and accessibility.

When you consider the cost of child care and early education versus the median income where you live, I think we can agree the barriers are high for a family with two working parents and one child.

But what if you add one … or two … or three more children? And what if one of the parents doesn’t work? Or what if it’s a single parent—which, according to data from the organization Kids Count—is the case for 34 percent of the families in the United States … And what if they’re living in poverty, which Kids Count reports is the case for 18 percent of the families in the U.S.?

The fact that some kids go to pre-K because their families can afford it and other kids don’t go because their families cannot … creates a rift between “the haves” and “the have-nots” before formal public education even begins.

We see the consequences down the line, and that’s a shrinking pool of applicants years before most workforce development efforts begin.

Those of us who are deeply committed to education and workforce development know this is not just a social problem. This is also an economic problem, and framing it this way should bring us together to work toward solutions.

The Hunt Institute and the Build Initiative are doing great work to engage legislators in tackling this problem. But they can’t do it alone. We can’t drop the whole issue into the lap of any one agency or organization and say, “Solve it.”

Every leader in business, industry and government who is looking for the best and brightest of tomorrow must join the fight. This is harder now than ever before.

We know that the debates of the day will rage on, as they always have. We live in a time bogged down by cynicism and despair and divisiveness, and it is easy to lose hope, lose belief and lose faith.

But one of the great strengths of America is that we’ve always looked forward with hope and determination and imagination, even while fighting the battles of today.

I’ll use HII as an example. Three years ago, we launched the HII Scholarship Program. In addition to awarding post-secondary scholarships to children of HII employees, we award scholarships of up to $3,000 toward pre-school readiness education costs.

We also have a chief human resources officer serves as chairman of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s board of directors.

At our Newport News Shipbuilding division in Virginia, we contribute every year to Smart Beginnings and the Downtown Hampton Child Development Center, one of the highest-rated child care facilities in the state.

At Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, we have a representative on the board of Excel By 5, a community-based program that emphasizes the important roles communities play in educating their children during their most formative years.

Granted, for businesses to invest in pre-school education, we have to be willing to be patient about any specific return on investment. We have to really be making the investment for the “greater good,” so to speak.

And that may be a hard truth for some to believe. Especially if you, like me, did not go to pre-K or even kindergarten. I didn’t start school until first grade myself.

For most of us who didn’t go, it’s because we didn’t HAVE TO. For me it was more than 50 years ago.

The work environment was a different place and, indeed, education was different than it is today. We didn’t know about how the brain developed at such an early age like we do today. Today, it’s less about local competition and more about global competition.

We know the world is starting earlier. To stay competitive, so should we.

The bottom line is that in today’s economy—in today’s society—pre-K is critical to the U.S. being able to deliver the product of a globally competitive education. We have to foster a love of learning—before kindergarten.

So whether you represent business, government, schools, parents, child care providers, faith communities—you drive the effort to lay the groundwork for school success and a more prosperous community.

But my call to action for you today is to ask yourself: Will I be able to recruit, hire and retain the people I need to be successful next year? Will I be able to compete for the best and brightest?

What about five years from now? Ten? Twenty?

I am asking you to please step up and take a leadership role in this very important issue. We need you.

We may feel like we’re giving something to these children. But the truth is they will give us infinitely more in return.

And remember: This is a national security issue. And it’s something we must address today for our nation to remain strong tomorrow.

Think back to the beginning of my remarks and those ships proudly built in Mississippi and Virginia—statements of national purpose—sailing the globe. Think about the men and women who build them and the men and women who sail them.

Think about how much stronger we could be if we were recruiting from a talent pool not of 20 percent, but of 50 or 75 or 100 percent.  Early education for all can get us there.

As passionate as I am about education, I’ve learned from three people who are even more passionate than I am:  My wife, Nancy, and our two daughters, Caroline and Sarah. I’m delighted that Nancy and Sarah are both here today. And Sarah is joined by her husband and our son-in-law, Dan.

Nancy worked in pre-K classrooms for more than 20 years and knows first-hand the unquestionable power of early education. I have seen up close how she unlocks the love of learning inside children.

That is the word she uses—“unlocks”—and it is astonishing to watch. Every child requires his or her own key. And once that love for learning is unlocked, all things become possible.

One of the restaurants we enjoy back home in Virginia has pictures on the wall of me at ship christenings with various U.S. presidents. Pretty cool, right?

Yet the folks that come up to say hello are the ones who want to catch up with Nancy—her former students, whether they are 8 years old or 20. I think that’s beyond cool. Every pre-K child should be so lucky.

I’m proud that Sarah is also influencing young lives. After graduating from Tulane, she taught at a charter school in Atlanta, but she and her family have lived in New Orleans for several years now, and she will soon be awarded a PhD in school psychology.

She works at Akili Academy, a charter school housed in the former William Frantz Elementary School. If you’re not from here and don’t recognize the name of the William Frantz Elementary School, it was the epicenter of the city’s desegregation crisis in 1960.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with this quote from Ruby Bridges, the brave 6-year-old girl who changed the course of American history—and, indeed, our nation’s security—when she marched into the school, escorted by four federal marshals. Later in life, Ms. Bridges said:

“I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one.”

Please join me in putting your experience to the good purpose of fighting for early education.

Thank you.

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