Prison inmates learning aerospace work

AIRWAY HEIGHTS — Forget license plates. Some inmates at the Airway Heights Corrections Center are training for jobs in the state’s huge aerospace industry.

About a dozen inmates are enrolled in a program that will make them certified aerospace composite technicians. Their goal is a post-prison chance to land jobs at companies such as Boeing and its suppliers.

“There is a strong shortage of people to be aerospace composite technicians,” said Chad Lewis, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

The idea is that former inmates who have good-paying jobs are much less likely to return to prison, he said. To be sure, the prison system still trains inmates in traditional inmate fields like upholstery and furniture-making.

But there was no good reason to ignore aerospace, Washington’s largest manufacturing sector, with jobs scattered across the state. “We wanted to teach offenders something relevant to the local job market,” Lewis said.

Taught by instructors from a local community college, the inmates must earn 49 college credits to be certified. They are in class six hours a day, five days a week, and the program takes a year to complete at the medium security prison in this suburb of Spokane. The classes are unique because they offer a combination of book learning and hands-on experience making composite materials. That combination makes abstract concepts easier for students to grasp and retain.

The first class of inmates will graduate in January.

It has been a positive experience for inmate Richard Syers of Spokane, who dropped out of school in the sixth grade but has been earning As and Bs in the new program, which includes rigorous courses like trigonometry.

Syers, 42, hopes to move to western Washington when he is released in 2½ years, and continue training for a job in aerospace. “Everything is composites now,” Syers, who is serving time for sex crimes, said.

David Murley, dean of prison education for Spokane Community College, said more than half the inmates didn’t even have a GED when they arrived in prison.

Murley said a survey of employers across the state found a dramatic shortage of workers in composite materials. He noted that Boeing’s 787 is largely made of composites, which are defined as products made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties.

In addition to airplanes, composite materials are used in boat hulls, swimming pool panels, car bodies, shower stalls, bathtubs and spacecraft.

“Composites are everywhere,” Murley said. “There are tons of jobs out there.”

The program aims to train inmates for jobs that start at $15 an hour and go up, Murley said. Murley acknowledged that some employers may not hire former inmates, but he believes many will.

Inmate Jeffrey Swenson, 34, from Lake Tapps, said he always loved science in school.

“I’d like to be trained for a job in this area,” said Swenson, as he used a pair of electric scissors to cut material from a pattern.

Swenson, serving time for auto theft, noted he is not due for release until 2016, and wonders if employers will be willing to hire a felon. “It’s something I think about every day,” he said.

Mike Paris, educational administrator for the state Department of Corrections, said Airway Heights is one of five prisons in the state where the agency is combining classroom instruction with hands-on experience in better-paying professions. Inmates at the other prisons are being taught horticulture, building maintenance, baking, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning skills.

The prison system must constantly adapt its training programs, as even traditional inmate jobs such as welding and auto mechanics have become more complex, he said.

“We’ve got to stay up to speed,” Paris said.

Paris estimated it cost about $2,000 per person to get inmates certified as aerospace technicians. But that is less than the cost of having a former inmate commit another crime, go through the criminal justice system and end up back in prison with a long sentence.

“It’s pretty clear this is the smart thing to do,” Paris said.

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