High Hopes: Aerospace an industry hungry for workers

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

At a time when jobs are tough to come by, the one industry that keeps hiring is aerospace.

That trend likely won’t change soon, given a growing demand for aircraft and the high number of aerospace workers who are approaching retirement.

Over the past few years, state and local government leaders have beefed up education and training programs for the aerospace industry.

The new generation of aerospace workers is diverse.

It includes 18-year-old Hussain Sabah, who studies precision machining at Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center and already works for New Breed, a supplier to Boeing. And it includes Shirley Johnson, 43, who’s getting a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Everett center to advance her career at Boeing.

The jet maker estimates airlines will need 34,000 aircraft over the next 20 years. At the same time, roughly half of Boeing’s workforce will be eligible to retire within a decade.

As other industries have laid off workers, Boeing has added employees in Washington, increasing its employment here by 12,887 positions since the end of 2010. That total doesn’t include the employees the company hired to replace people who are retiring.

In all, Boeing today employs about 86,504 in Washington. The state’s overall aerospace employment is estimated at 96,900.

Boeing officials expect employment to top out in 2012. However, the company still will have retirements to accommodate.

A state study in 2010 found that Washington universities were producing 1,101 fewer engineers with bachelor’s or master’s degrees annually than what will be needed in 2014 to 2019. Since then, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature have approved a plan to add 850 engineering slots at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Skilled manufacturing workers also are tough to come by. Companies across the country have a combined need for some 600,000 high-tech manufacturing workers, according to a recent report by General Electric. GE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Alcoa recently formed a coalition with the goal of recruiting 100,000 military veterans into manufacturing by 2015.

Here in Washington, a coalition of 11 community and technical colleges, called Air Washington, came together to win a $20 million grant. Their goal is to train 2,600 students by 2014 in fields like advanced manufacturing, composites, aircraft assembly and maintenance.

Most of the programs, especially the aviation maintenance technician or the machining programs, are filled to capacity, said Mary Kaye Bredeson, who oversees the Air Washington effort.

The 11 community colleges in the program aren’t the only ones aiming to train the next wave of manufacturing workers. One-third of the students attending Lake Washington Institute of Technology’s machine technology program in Kirkland are from Snohomish County, which already has several manufacturing and aerospace training options.

Everett resident Loretta Aragon commutes to Lake Washington’s machining program five days a week. The 40-year-old former carpenter isn’t sure she’ll end up in aerospace but knows the skills she’s learning are transferable to other industries. Boeing recruiters frequently visit Aragon’s class with doughnuts and promises of jobs.

“They’re talking about taking me to retirement,” she said.