By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer
It’s one thing to infuse an industry with new workers. It’s another challenge altogether to add “master”-level employees.
But that’s what the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) is trying to do. Formed in 2008, the committee is charged with bridging the skills gap between the aerospace industry and would-be workers.
AJAC is a publicly and privately funded endeavor guided by employers, educational institutions, aerospace workers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
The committee recently revealed a plan to allow select machinist apprentices — union and non-union alike — to pursue a college degree in engineering. The apprentices will be able to apply life and work experience toward a two-year degree, building toward an engineering career.
It’s part of a pilot program in Washington to help workers earn college credit and advance their career prospects through workplace-supported education.
The apprenticeship program has grown over the past four years.
Director Laura Hopkins told aerospace suppliers at a recent conference that the program has 100 apprentices across the state.
“The program is expanding,” Hopkins said. “And it’s not just about machining. It’s about composites, interiors, sheet metal and quality-assurance programs.”
Initially, due to the economic downturn in 2008, AJAC had a tough time finding companies willing to take on apprentices. But with the Boeing Co. and Airbus increasing production, aerospace suppliers across the state need skilled workers. That need is expected to continue as Boeing and other companies experience a wave of retirements.
Apprentices who earn a two-year degree will have a foundation for a variety of engineering-related career paths. Machinists have the practical, hands-on experience many Washington employers seek but are unable to find in traditional engineering graduates, Hopkins said. Meanwhile, machinists interested in engineering are effectively blocked because they would need to start fresh on a four-year degree.
“This opens up significant opportunities in the world of manufacturing — for the machinists interested in engineering and the employers who rely on their expertise,” said Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board.
Besides the apprenticeship program, AJAC has developed a nine-week program in Pierce County where employers can send machinists. The organization also has a mobile training unit — a large truck equipped with a classroom and training space — that can be used by aerospace companies for targeted, short-term training.