How many organizations does it take to boost the aerospace industry in Washington?
This is not about changing a light bulb; it’s about promoting and growing one of the state’s brightest economic lights. So perhaps more than one.
Well, there are 70 aerospace-related groups in the state, some of them government-created and some of them purely of business but all with more or less the same mission: to promote the industry, to create jobs.
In March, Alex Pietsch, a former city of Renton official, was named director of the new Governor’s Aerospace Office, charged with getting a handle on all the players and focusing the mission.
Additionally, Pietsch directs the Washington Aerospace Partnership, an organization of labor, industry and government — and which helps pay Pietsch’s salary at the governor’s office.
Pietsch also is involved with the Washington Aerospace Council, also created by the governor and which Pietsch was addressing last month when he cited that figure of 70 organizations boosting the aviation industry statewide.
Confused by Pietsch’s various roles? Try being an executive of a small or medium-sized aerospace supplier.
You’ve got a company to run but want to help influence the future of aerospace in Washington.
Which of the state’s 70 groups do you participate in?
Besides the Washington Aerospace Partnership and Washington Aerospace Council, there are the Aerospace Futures Alliance, the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, Snohomish County Aerospace in Action, the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing, Air Washington, the King County Aerospace Alliance, the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition, the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium and the Aerospace Pipeline Advisory Committee.
And dozens more.
“A lot of people have been at work on aerospace,” Pietsch said in an interview.
It’s now up to him to come up with a path forward that lessens confusion. Despite a nearly 100-year history in airplane manufacturing, Washington lacks a statewide aerospace strategy — a fact highlighted as a weakness in a 2011 competitiveness study by Accenture.
Is fewer better?
While the Boeing Co. recently committed to building a new generation of the 737, the MAX, in Renton, Washington faces competitive pressure to make the state attractive for additional new Boeing programs. It also is working to meet the industry’s workforce needs through education and training initiatives.
Linda Lanham, executive director of the Aerospace Futures Alliance, acknowledges the need for a state plan and for consolidation of the aerospace groups.
“I think we do need to figure out how we come together,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re not duplicating each other.”
Lanham’s alliance, which has been around since 2006, has industry representatives as well as those from public education and other areas of government. It fills the role of industry advocate, sending lobbyists like Lanham to the Legislature. That’s what sets AFA apart from other aerospace organizations, Lanham noted.
On AFA’s board is John Theisen, CEO of Orion Aerospace in Federal Way. Theisen also sits on the Washington Aerospace Council. At the June meeting, Theisen voiced concern about the demands of belonging to so many aerospace groups. He advocated alignment and consolidation.
“We could participate more effectively if there were only a few,” he said.
Council members noted the need for participation from a variety of suppliers, rather than just a few. The greater the diversity of participating suppliers, the more state educators and workforce training officials understand the true needs of the industry.
“The number of suppliers in the groups only scratches the surface of those out there,” Theisen said.
Ben Hempstead, a lead engineer at Mukilteo’s ElectroImpact, also is a board member for both the AFA and the aerospace council. Although Hempstead doesn’t see those meetings as too demanding, he has held off joining many other groups.
“I put most of my effort behind AFA. That has yielded the most benefits for (ElectroImpact) and for me professionally,” he said.
While AFA has the most legislative sway, the Washington Aerospace Partnership “seems to have a lot of economic clout,” said Hempstead, who has attended meetings of the partnership but isn’t on the board.
Established in 2009, the partnership, often referred to as WAP, quickly set sights on helping Boeing win the $35 billion aerial-refueling tanker contract from the Air Force. The organization is an intersection of industry, government and labor. The partnership spent its early days raising awareness about the importance of aerospace around the state, said Bob Drewel, a co-chairman.
“By most accounts, we did a good job in getting the word out,” he said.
Next, the partnership raised money to fund the $600,000 state competitiveness study by Accenture. The study was done in preparation for competing for final assembly of the Boeing 737 MAX. Although the group is no longer in fundraising mode, it pays part of Pietsch’s salary in his role as director of the Governor’s Aerospace Office.
Down the road, Drewel believes, the Partnership will have an “expanded statewide role” in aerospace. The organization has eyes on what could be the next competition for Boeing work: the revamped 777X.
A workforce pipeline
Part of gearing up for the 777X means having a workforce pipeline.
That’s where Mary Kaye Bredeson comes in. Like Pietsch and Hempstead, Bredeson has multiple roles. She’s the director of the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing, which is hosted by Everett Community College at Paine Field. The center serves as a liaison and resource for the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.
Bredeson also is part of the Aerospace Curriculum Alignment Team, which formed when people like Bredeson learned that Boeing was soliciting information from each of the community and technical colleges about course offerings. The team meets regularly with Boeing’s own academic team. Those meetings have helped the community and technical colleges understand the training needs of the state’s largest aerospace company.
“I’m surprised how fast they have reacted,” ElectroImpact’s Hempstead said of the quick response by community and technical colleges.
Bredeson is quick to credit Boeing for openness in sharing information, something Boeing hasn’t been noted for previously.
Bredeson also participates on the Aerospace Pipeline Advisory Committee, which the Legislature created this year. That committee is charged with coordinating all aerospace training, she said.
“We need one place to ensure we’re getting the job done,” Bredeson said.
Bredeson estimates she spends about 85 percent of her time out of the office, attending meetings of various aerospace committees and visiting businesses and schools. But she notes that’s really what her position requires.
However, like Orion’s Theisen, Bredeson recognizes the call for consolidation.
“I think we’re overlapping,” Bredeson said. “People cannot attend all these meetings.”
Hempstead takes the capitalist’s approach to the state’s aerospace groups, saying some will fall away when members lose interest.
Mission could change
Pietsch sees each of the three organizations that he belongs to having central roles.
“I think that triangle is going to be very effective,” he said.
According to the road map Pietsch presented in June, the Council on Aerospace would help develop aerospace strategy. The Governor’s Aerospace Office sets priorities and, with the Legislature, sets policy. Lanham’s AFA advocates for policy while it and the partnership help with implementation. All have the same goal of retaining and creating aerospace jobs.
The mission of Pietsch, Lanham and others could change when a new governor takes office. Though candidates Rob McKenna, the Republican, and Jay Inslee, the Democrat, both say aerospace is important to the state, either could foresee a different path. Lanham’s Aerospace Futures Alliance recently endorsed McKenna in the organization’s first foray into politics.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the new governor does,” Lanham said.
Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.