That was the take of speakers at KeyBank's economic impact forum held Tuesday in Seattle.
"This is a pretty grim time in the history of the state," Tayloe Washburn, senior advisor to Gov. Chris Gregoire, told about 200 representatives of government, business and education. "We really have to be mindful of this tremendous economic opportunity."
Earlier this year, Gregoire appointed Washburn to lead the state's efforts to keep assembly of Boeing's re-engined 737 jet in Washington.
Boeing has built its popular single-aisle 737 in Renton for decades. But Boeing's chief executive, Jim McNerney, said the company will weigh its options for the updated 737, called the 737 MAX. The jet maker is expected to announce its decision on where the 737 MAX will be built in the next six months.
Seven or eight other states are competing "very aggressively" to win work on Boeing's re-engined 737, Washburn said.
To see how Washington stacks up, a competitiveness study is being conducted by the consulting firm Accenture. Washington Aerospace Partnership, of which Washburn is a co-chair, has been raising money to pay for the study. Washburn expects the study will be finished in the next few weeks.
In the past, Washington has faced competition for aerospace work from states such as South Carolina, Texas and Kansas. Washington's advantage has long been its skilled workforce, which includes roughly 89,000 people. However, thousands of aerospace workers are expected to retire over the next decade as Boeing increases jet production. That has created a challenge for Boeing and Washington to develop skilled workers to replace those who retire.
Although the study isn't complete yet, Washburn believes it will indicate that Washington needs to focus on workforce development as well as transportation improvements.
Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, emphasized the importance of education in retaining Boeing. He said he sees a need for overhauling the kindergarten to 12th grade education system. Floyd also said universities like WSU should be able to align their curriculum to meet the needs of major employers like Boeing.
WSU is partnering with Everett Community College to offer engineering courses to help meet Boeing's need for engineers.
"If we have engineering in Everett that's meeting Boeing's workforce needs, then Boeing is more likely to stay there," Floyd said.
Like Washburn, Floyd believes the state should make strategic investments in ways that will create the most jobs.
Work on the 737 MAX, is "ours to lose," Washburn said.