BATH — As former presidents of Bath Iron Works, we follow BIW activities and read the recent Maine Sunday Telegram article (“At BIW, building high-tech ship causes high-stakes strain,” Nov. 1).

We understand the importance of BIW to Maine’s economy and families whose livelihoods depend on the shipyard’s success. Everyone in the cities, towns and businesses across Maine has a stake in the company’s $350 million payroll.

BIW’s 6,000 employees come from across the state. This year it hired 800 new workers – more than the displaced workforce when Bucksport’s Verso mill shutdown – and will hire 500 more next year. BIW recently invested $70 million to upgrade Bath facilities, bringing ship work indoors out of the elements. How many companies are hiring and investing at those levels in any year?

Manufacturing is the backbone of any state’s economy, and BIW is the cornerstone of Maine manufacturing.

Maine shipbuilding has a history built on a tradition of craftsmanship, quality and innovation. From yachts, to frigates and now the most sophisticated combatant ever built – Zumwalt – BIW has led the way. It held true to traditions of excellence and being willing to embrace change at critical points in its 131-year history.

Today is one of those critical times to embrace change. As BIW President Fred Harris put it bluntly in the Telegram article: “We have no other option: We must change.”

Harris has repeated this declaration (even at the christening we both attended of Rafael Peralta – DDG 115) – because building ships is a massive undertaking, with construction taking years.

He knows maintaining today’s employment levels requires keeping the construction pipeline full years into the future. This means competing for and winning new work. We agree with his assessment because BIW’s primary customer, the U.S. government, is insisting on lower costs and greater efficiency. Budgets are being cut and competition for new work is fierce. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Next year BIW will submit a bid to build 25 offshore patrol cutters for the Coast Guard, worth $12 billion over the next two decades. Eight yards competed in a preliminary round for the contract. The Coast Guard chose three finalists having the capability to build offshore patrol cutters: BIW and two non-union yards in Florida/Louisiana.

The contract winner will be based on one criterion – cost. According to the Telegram article, the same message was delivered by Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for acquisition, while meeting with Local S6 union President Jay Wadleigh. That communication’s significance, conveyed in an unprecedented meeting between BIW’s customer and the union, is clear to us – only cost will determine the shipyard to build the offshore patrol cutters.

After the Coast Guard contract award, the Navy will make a multi-year award for more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (DDG 51s) following the three under construction at BIW. BIW competes in the DDG 51 program with rival Ingalls in Mississippi. Again, cost will determine which yard receives the majority of ships to build. Winning this new work is critical to BIW, its employees and the entire state of Maine.

One critical lesson we learned during our times at BIW was improving efficiency and productivity produced more work resulting in increased employment.

Thousands of jobs were added as the company gained recognition as the most cost-effective shipbuilder in America. We lived with the reality that productivity equals opportunity – as true today as when we first started working at BIW – 12 and 50 years ago.

BIW is working with its unions to become more competitive, by working smarter and safer to squeeze millions of hours out of the construction of each ship.

It means that both management and labor have to bury doing things some old ways and embrace new ways to work more collaboratively.

We encourage BIW workers and management to be courageous and come together to make the changes needed to secure our yard’s future.

We ask all to treat each other with dignity, act with integrity and use Maine common sense. Reach a solution that allows BIW to provide a safe, productive shipyard that delivers quality ships. Success means stable employment and jobs for a new generation of shipbuilders and millions of dollars circulating through Maine’s economy. Failure means loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs and another painful setback for manufacturing in our state.

BIW is special to we who have built these great ships, those who served aboard Bath-built ships or stood at Popham and watched ships gracefully depart. Our heritage – Maine’s great shipyard – we want it preserved for generations to come.