Our Best Defense

Published: May 26, 2017

(Bill Ermatinger)

Bill Ermatinger ’86, political science, grew up in rural Baltimore County, in the (then) small town of Reisterstown. Decades later this small town background comes in handy when Ermatinger describes his work at Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest military shipbuilding company in the U.S. and our nation’s sole builder of nuclear aircraft carriers.

Aircraft carriers, those behemoths of the ocean, are the most complicated piece of machinery in the world, says Ermatinger. “Imagine you’re creating an entire small town. You have to have clean water and a way to feed all your citizens. You need sanitation and waste disposal, a hospital, a school. Put an airport in there. Now put a nuclear reactor in your town. Once all that is built, you have to be able to move that town anywhere on the planet. Now you have an aircraft carrier.”

As executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Huntington Ingalls, Ermatinger oversees employee health and welfare at the company’s Newport News, Virginia, headquarters as well as other domestic and international subsidiary shipyards. “I get to represent 40,000 shipbuilders of this nation – the men and women building things for our commander in chief,” he says. “They don’t decide where or when these assets are employed, but in the event, they are going to make darned sure they are in a fair fight. I get to represent them and that is simply the coolest thing on the planet.”

When Ermatinger graduated from high school during the Reagan era, he says, his friends all headed to Towson State or Salisbury. However, he says, “I was not looking for a social school. In the early ’80s, if you wanted to be challenged academically, UMBC was your choice.”

Above and beyond stellar academics, Ermatinger says he enjoyed the school’s inclusive environment. “Everybody was treated the same, whether it was race or gender or academic ability, the professors and fellow students made a truly welcoming environment that embraced all students,” recalls Ermatinger. “I visited my friends at other schools and it did not feel the same on their campuses – there were cliques, exclusive sub-groups. At UMBC, I never felt that.”

Upon graduating from UMBC, Ermatinger landed a job at Westinghouse Defense – “right next door to campus,” he laughs – working in human resources. Northrop Grumman bought out Westinghouse in 1996, and Ermatinger worked his way up through the administrative ranks there. “Northrop Grumman went on a buying rampage, like many other defense companies, and bought Newport News Shipbuilding in 2005 along with some other ship makers. They asked me to move down to Virginia to become human resources vice president there, and then when Northrop spun off all their shipbuilding assets into a new company, Huntington Ingalls, I became chief human resources officer for the whole new entity,” he explains.

Indeed, Ermatinger is almost uniquely positioned to weigh and compare the outcomes of various institutes of higher learning. He oversees hiring for his company, which is the largest industrial employer in Virginia (as well the largest private employer in Mississippi, where Huntington Ingalls builds non-nuclear military ships). At the same time, he is also looking at schools as a parent. By both standards, he says, “UMBC is a first-choice school, not a school of option.”

Ermatinger has reached this conclusion after hiring “tens of thousands of kids” over a 30-year career in HR. “I’ve seen a wide range of the skills and qualities needed to be successful, and UMBC excels at instilling the soft skills,” he says. According to Ermatinger, these essential, yet too often un-nurtured, skills include the ability to work with others and to be a good listener. The willingness to persist. To be comfortable in charge: those are skills and attributes that employers are ultimately trying to hire. “The GPA is important, the program they graduated from is important, but in an interview we are also looking at intangibles. The whole person, not just their transcript,” says Ermatinger.

(In fact, Ermatinger credits this “whole person” recruitment approach as one reason Huntington Ingalls’ employee attrition rate is below 3% when the manufacturing industry as a whole averages 13.3% attrition annually).

“That is what my professors at UMBC taught me. It’s part of the culture. And I am very proud of that, as an alumnus.”

— Michelle Gienow

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