Bethlehem's Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard, which saw employment drop to its lowest level ever earlier this year, is pinning its hopes for a rapid recovery on its ability to win two big contracts this year -- one a five-year deal for maintaining four Navy vessels and the other to build tunnel sections for a new highway under Boston Harbor.
"We've been going up and down like a roller coaster," David Watson, the yard's manager, said yesterday. "We need to obtain more continuous operations to avoid the ups and downs."
The new strategy is to win some longer-term contracts to buffer the yard against the vagaries of the ship-repair business. If the strategy is successful, employment could stabilize at about 1,200 workers, or almost double the current level of 660, Mr. Watson said.
The Navy maintenance contract would mean that at any given time during the five-year period, one of the Navy ships would be at Sparrows Point, providing steady employment for machinists and others who work in repair crafts.
The tunnel-work contract would mean steady employment for the yard's structural steel workers through 1993. The two projects would be complementary, allowing Sparrows Point to retain the broad base of skilled workers it needs to win and carry out other ship-repair contracts.
"There's no sense taking the work if you can't supply the workers," Mr. Watson said.
He made his remarks following a press conference called by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., in the steel canyon formed by the yard's floating dry dock, the Bethpride.
The senator said that she will do what she can to help Bethlehem land the contract for the repair of the Navy ships.
She also announced that she will introduce legislation next week intended to force other nations to stop subsidizing their shipbuilding industries. A similar bill was introduced in the House in January by Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd.
The senator said that she opposes the military's proposal to buy 40 foreign-owned "ro-ro" ships -- an industry term for roll-on/roll-off vessels, which carry vehicles that can be driven on or off a ship without the use of cranes or other specialized port facilities. Instead, she proposed a program to convert existing ships to the type wanted by the Department of Defense, an approach that would give work to domestic yards.
While the long-term prospects of the industry would be helped by Senator Mikulski's proposals, Sparrows Point's immediate prospects are dependent on its ability to land the two big contracts that will be bid this summer.
The yard's floating dry dock, which has been empty for much of this year, had a passenger ship, the Crown Monarch, in it yesterday. Workers are adding a stabilizer to the stern to make the ship ride more smoothly in rough seas.
On the other side of the yard, the Dwayne T. Williams, a Navy cargo ship that helped supply troops in the Persian Gulf, is in for routine maintenance and repairs.
Those two projects have allowed Bethlehem to recall several hundred workers, bringing employment to 660. Just two months ago, when the yard was empty, employment fell to 390. "That's the lowest it has ever been," said Bill Gignack, a spokesman for Bethlehem Steel.
The slowdown meant that even the most senior people at the yard have found themselves out of work.
"I've been laid off eight times since Christmas," said Tony Brocato, a 52-year-old welder who has worked at Sparrows Point for almost 24 years.