EVERETT — Erik Bannister spends his workdays fastening together pieces of 777 midsections.
The 21-year-old’s identical twin brother, Aaron, works on the deck below him, in and around the fuselage, doing similar work at the Boeing Co. plant.
“I grew up wanting to build airplanes since I was young,” Erik Bannister said Monday.
The Bannisters are the kind of people Boeing is looking to hire: younger workers to replace its aging and changing workforce. If it could, the company would stamp out thousands more, just like the homegrown duo. At least in the long term.
While the company’s overall workforce in Washington contracted by nearly 10 percent during the past year, it’s hiring for other jobs, especially in assembly roles. Many of positions lost through involuntary layoffs were engineers and drafters. Most Machinists who have left recently took voluntary departures, as part of a strategy to manage a bulge of older employees.
The company hosted five job fairs this fall. There are likely hundreds of slots to fill next year, and thousands in the coming years. Reasons for the openings include assembly ramping up for the new 777X jet. It also owes to a graying workforce.
“If you look at the development of our workforce, we’re going to have one-half of the people eligible to retire in five years,” said Ray Conner, the company’s vice chairman.
That’s right: of roughly 27,000 Boeing Machinists in Washington, half could bow out in that time. And the company will need to replace them.
As it goes about scouting trained workers, the company and its training partners are fighting perceptions of a dying manufacturing industry.
Boeing is trying to crank up its recruiting pipeline by teaming up with 29 high schools as well as 24 community and technical colleges in Washington.
That includes the Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center, a partnership with high schools in Snohomish and Island counties.
The Bannister twins went there while attending Kamiak High School. It helped them land a job with a Boeing supplier after graduating in 2014.
“It’s not book work. It’s hands work,” Aaron Bannister said of the skills center. “Real-life stuff you can’t get by sitting in a classroom.”
They’ve been with Boeing itself for about two years now, as structures mechanics. Their father also worked there for more than two decades.
Sno-Isle Tech isn’t new. It opened 40 years ago.
“We’re kind of that stepping stone between regular high schools and community college,” director Maggie Bagwell said.
Of the center’s 20 programs, only one is specifically about aerospace. Others, such as precision manufacturing and even auto-body skills, might transfer over, Bagwell said. They have expensive, specialized equipment, such as $20,000 lathe, that makes them a regional training magnet.
Boeing’s workforce training efforts extend well beyond the Puget Sound area.
Will Sarett, who directs career and technical education for the Yakima School District, was visiting Everett on Monday to celebrate their partnership.
“People still think that careers in manufacturing are still not as viable a career path as somebody going to a four-year college,” Sarett said. “Actually, the opposite is true.”
He said employers increasingly look for problem-solvers who are creative and work well in teams. Those and other skills are lacking in the labor pool.
It’s not just Boeing’s issue: Of 3.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs expected to be available during the next decade, at least 2 million will go unfilled because of a skills gap, according to a study company officials cited. Boeing predicts at least 40 percent of its openings over the next five years will be in manufacturing.
The recruiting pipeline, “isn’t as full as we’d like it to be,” said Michelle Burreson, a senior manager for Boeing’s workforce development.
“It’s about getting people excited: students, parents and counselors,” Burreson said.
Boeing Vice Chairman Conner said the big change in recent years has been the outreach to high schools and other training programs, to get qualified entry-level workers. Training doesn’t end on hire.
“We’d also like to see them move on to some of the more advanced programs,” he said.
Out on the factory floor, the twins are looking down that path.
Erik Bannister has enrolled in classes to pursue leadership jobs. Aaron Bannister plans to follow a similar course.