Aero-tech firms struggle to find workers

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

EVERETT — Unemployment remains high, but some employers are having a tough time finding workers.

Ballard Technology, for example, resorted to posting a “Now Hiring Aerospace Jobs” sign at its Airport Road site. After 25 years in business, the developer and manufacturer of hardware and software for the aerospace industry wants to hire locally — maybe even from down the road.

When shifts change at the Boeing Co. a few miles away, traffic backs up outside Ballard Technology.

“I’ve got to think there are some people looking at our sign,” said Jason Harper, manager of human resources.

Like many aerospace-related companies in the Puget Sound region, Ballard Technology was founded by a former Boeing employee. The company got its start in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood before moving to Pine Street in Everett. In 2007, the company moved to the location east of Paine Field.

The company, which is largely engineering-driven, employs 34 people. Much of the production work is outsourced, though the company does some assembly work in Everett. In late 2011, Ballard Technology was bought by New York-based Astronics Corp. That should ensure Ballard has the backing it needs to grow, Harper said.

That growth includes adding five positions — when Ballard can find the workers to fill those roles.

Aerospace workers, both engineers and production employees, have been in demand in recent years as Boeing’s commercial airplane business has soared. But the aerospace giant often attracts more experienced workers from companies in the area. And some of the county’s larger aerospace companies, like Korry and Aviation Technical Services, pull from smaller ones.

Harper has seen candidates drop out at the last minute to take jobs at Korry or Fluke.

The most difficult position for Ballard to fill has been that of electronics inspector. The position has been open off and on for more than a year and a half, Harper said. The company has brought in temporary workers, via job placement agencies, to get through. However, the recruiters at three out of four job agencies have told Harper they can’t find full-time workers with the right qualifications for the job.

Ballard seeks an inspector with five to 10 years of experience and certification in electrical inspection standards. Harper has even taken the unusual step of contacting companies that employ people in similar positions, with little luck.

“A lot of employers are having a difficult time finding quality-assurance workers,” said Andrea Anderson, who serves as program manager for the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee.

The committee, also called AJAC, was established by Washington state to help address the anticipated shortage of skilled workers. AJAC coordinates apprenticeships with aerospace companies, as well as some short-term specialized training. The committee includes quality-assurance course work in the apprenticeship program. And aerospace employers are telling the committee that quality-assurance experience is important to them.

“Historically, workers would inspect the parts on the floor,” Anderson said.

As companies moved to having inspectors, fewer workers were trained in quality-assurance techniques and standards. That creates a smaller pool of candidates for jobs like the one at Ballard Technology.

Ballard also has two high-level engineering positions open. Both jobs are new roles, added due to Ballard’s growth.

“Our hope is to find someone locally,” Harper said, though he has received applications from several out-of-state engineers.

This past legislative session, the state took steps to expand capacity for engineering students at public universities, including Washington State University, which will begin offering engineering courses at the Everett Community College campus this fall.

EvCC announced plans to offer an evening program for engineering transfer students. Students earn an associate degree in three years and then can transfer to an engineering program at a state university.

EvCC engineering instructor Eric Davishahl said the evening classes add capacity and accommodate people who work during the day.

Ballard will be looking for engineers and assembly workers alike Wednesday at a job fair at the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center in Everett. About 17 companies and education centers will be represented at the job fair, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 3008 100th St. SW, Everett. For more info, visit washingtonaerospace.com.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.