Unions fear a skills gap could jeopardise a multi-billion pound defence order bound for the North East.
Unions fear shipyard skills will be lost
Swan Hunter shipyards on the Tyne and the Tees are set to work on a £2.9bn government aircraft carrier project.
But a start date for work has been put back until 2008, which trade union bosses say could result in skilled workers moving out of the region.
The firm's Tyneside yard has enough work until 2006 but its Teesside yard is already effectively mothballed.
In January 2003 the government announced BAE systems and French company Thales would build two new giant aircraft carriers.
Northern Defence Industries, which represents the interests of companies in the north-east of England, said the project would create up to 6,000 jobs for 10 years at the Tyne and Tees yards of Swan Hunter, which are due to share the work with other UK yards.
But the Amicus trade union fears there may be insufficient skilled shipyard workers available when work eventually starts on the project.
It fears staff will find work elsewhere - possibly overseas.
Swan Hunter management has been campaigning to get the contract brought forward, echoing union fears about future skills.
Regional union official Davey Hall, who is himself a former Swan Hunter worker, said the North East yards needed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) project brought forward.
He said: "We are trying to encourage the MoD to release work as soon as possible.
"If it's not brought forward we will not only lose jobs, but lose the skills of these yards which will have a serious knock-on effect for the region.
"We've seen what happened with Rover and we could have a similar catastrophe here. But the difference here is that work exists and it could be brought forward.
"We will end up in a situation where, if and when the work is given to us, we could actually be faced with having to bring in migrant workers from Europe to get the work done."
The MoD says it is working to a timetable which should see work begin on the carriers in early 2008.