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Brain drain among Boeing's biggest challenges

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By Michelle Dunlop, Herald Writer
Published:
Will it be enough?
It’s a question that likely goes through the minds of Boeing Co. executives as well as state and local governmental leaders.
Will their efforts to combat the upcoming slew of aerospace worker retirements be enough? Will there be enough engineers and skilled Machinists to design and build the next all-new aircraft?
Over the next decade, the state anticipates a need for 21,000 aerospace workers to replace the tide of Baby Boomers getting ready to retire.
Twenty-two percent of Boeing workers could retire at any moment. They’ve already reached the company’s eligible retirement age of 55.
But the shortage of skilled aerospace workers doesn’t stop with Boeing and Washington state. Nationwide, aerospace companies anticipate a need of 129,350 workers over five years. Over the decade, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin alone said it would need 140,000 workers, according to a study published in late 2008 by the Aerospace Industries Association.
Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, considers the wave of retirements as “the intellectual disarmament” of this country. “We don’t have enough young people getting interested in math and science,” he said.
Boeing’s challenge is to build the depth and breadth of engineering resources it needs to sustain a variety of aircraft programs. While the company puts its 787-8 and 747-8 Freighter through flight testing this year, Boeing has a lot more on its engineering plate with the 777 and 737 replacement or re-engined jets.
But those opportunities are the ones that will enable Boeing to attract new talent, even if a shortage of workers occurs, said Mike Delaney, vice president for engineering at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Government initiatives
Both on a state and national level, government is lining up its own initiatives to promote the aerospace industry.
In 2006, Congress formed the Interagency Aerospace Revitalization Task Force to begin exploring ways to solve the problem of an anticipated aerospace worker shortage.
In 2008, Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the formation of a state aerospace council, which will coordinate the state’s efforts — from universities and community colleges to industry and beyond.
The expected worker shortage has local government attention as well. Just last summer, Snohomish County, together with the Aerospace Futures Alliance, founded the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center in Everett — a center that is receiving funds from all levels of government.
Chilling effect of economy
The economic downturn has discouraged some aerospace workers from retiring.
Robin Johnston, a composite repair mechanic, has worked at the Boeing Co. for 25 years. Johnston turns 65 this November and plans to retire next year. He’s waiting to turn 65 to retire for the health benefits. But the economy didn’t help matters. The Machinists’ strike, which coincided with the downturn in the economy in 2008, meant Johnston’s Voluntary Investment Plan with Boeing took a hit.
With older workers holding out longer for retirement, aerospace companies aren’t hiring and training young workers, a move that potentially will create an even worse gap in skilled and unskilled workers. The state’s new apprenticeship program can’t find enough companies willing to hire even at the apprentice level.
At Boeing, Johnston worries about having time to bring new workers up to speed. Eight to 10 years ago, experienced Machinists like Johnston were ready to train new employees.
“Now, we really don’t have the time,” Johnson said. “It’s really hard to keep up with your job and train these kids, too.”
The Machinists and Boeing, however, have an apprenticeship program that is managed jointly. The two also coordinate a peer-to-peer mentoring program that is gaining traction on the shop floor.
The economy is taking a toll on the engineering side, too.
The state’s budget crunch meant that last year the University of Washington turned away four out of every 10 qualified engineering students at a time when a shortage of engineers is expected.
During tough economic years like the one the state is experiencing, “sacrifices are going to have to be made. But the last place they should cut funding is education,” Boeing’s Albaugh said.
“Ultimately, what drives an economy is a skilled work force,” he said.
Nationwide, the United States isn’t graduating enough engineers for aerospace, especially given that some projects at companies like Boeing require employees to have security clearance.
Albaugh has changed the company’s recruiting strategy to make hiring new engineering graduates smoother. He believes the company grew complacent in its recruiting.
“We’ve downsized over the years. We forgot how to recruit aggressively,” he said.
But Boeing’s Delaney remains confident the company will find the talent it needs.
“It becomes incumbent on Boeing to become a preferred employer,” he said. “If there are 100 engineering graduates and we need 10, we need to be out there making sure we get the top grads.”
The younger generation
Young people across the nation are either not interested in aerospace careers or don’t have the math and science skills for it. The problem doesn’t just start in college. Only about 8 percent of Washington high school students expressed an interest in engineering as a career when they took the SAT in 2008.
Nationally, “there really isn’t that visionary statement” to get the younger generation interested in engineering and science the way there was when Albaugh was growing up.
“It was hard not to be excited by going to the moon,” he said of the space program.
The lack of interest also could be tied to a bad image of the aerospace industry, according to the Interagency Aerospace Revitalization Task Force. Layoffs, labor strife and outsourcing have tarnished aerospace’s reputation over the years. Eighty percent of aerospace workers who responded to a 2002 study said they wouldn’t encourage their children to pursue careers in the industry.
On the outsourcing subject, Albaugh believes the company has done too much off-loading of engineering. He’s asked Delaney to assess which functions should be pulled back in.
“Once you outsource (a core competency) to someone else, you decide that’s something you aren’t going to compete on,” Delaney said.
Going forward, Boeing will retain engineering in the areas that really give the company an edge, he said.
In all levels of Boeing, from Albaugh to Delaney to Duane Schireman, a human resources director, managers are promoting a better company image.
“We need to be telling our story more,” Schireman said.
Despite the efforts made by Boeing and the state to encourage people to get into aerospace careers, Shireman believes finding enough aerospace engineers and Machinists will be a major part of his job for years to come.
“It’s only going to get more challenging,” he said.
Story tags » BoeingBusinessInsider stories

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