Training workers seen as key to future aerospace jobs

EVERETT — In a hangar at Paine Field, three students are fitting wooden ribs onto two struts the size of two-by-fours as they rebuild the wing of a 1930s biplane. Nearby, other Everett Community College students are crammed in the cabin of a tiny single-engine Cessna, examining the instrument panel wiring. That plane, with shag-covered seats, is dwarfed by a massive 747 jet engine a few feet away.

The engine is for display only. The school does have a 727 donated by FedEx for students, many of whom could end up working on Boeing planes after finishing the college’s two-year airframe and powerplant program.

The program is one of dozens around the state developing skilled workers to handle complicated jobs in aerospace and related fields, which is part of a state strategy to keep those high-paying jobs in the region.

Just three years ago, a report by the Washington Council on Aerospace raised concerns that the state’s two-year schools weren’t doing a good enough job of teaching skills that the industry needed.

Since then, the schools have worked with aerospace companies to align curricula with real-world needs, said Mary Kaye Brederson, director of the state Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing.

Her Paine Field office coordinates that effort.

Twenty-four of the state’s 34 technical and community colleges have aerospace-related programs, which granted nearly 6,000 degrees and certificates last year.

Eleven of those schools, including Everett Community College, and the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee are in the final year of a three-year federal grant worth $20 million that has paid for more enrollment slots, more instructors and new equipment for aerospace-related programs. The grant is expected to pay for an additional 2,700 students by the time it finishes.

And earlier this month, the Legislature approved $17 million for education and training of future aerospace workers as part of its pitch to the Boeing Co. to put the final assembly site for its new 777X in Everett. That spending includes $8.5 million to add 1,000 new students at two-year schools and $1.5 million to expand the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center at Paine Field.

The money will be spent regardless of where the 777X is built, said David Postman, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee.

“This is not the end of our efforts to improve that pipeline” developing skilled workers, he said.

But other states are investing in workforce education, too. For example, Trident Technical College in South Carolina recently announced plans to build a $79 million aerospace training center in North Charleston, where Boeing has a second 787 assembly line.

“Clearly, South Carolina is creating new programs,” as are Kansas, Texas and other regions with aerospace industries, said Alex Pietsch, director of the governor’s aerospace office.

The state has to continue improving its training and education, because even if the 777X is assembled elsewhere, the aerospace industry in Washington is expected to have thousands of job openings a year for skilled workers because of expansion and demographics, according to state forecasts.

“We have an aging workforce,” Brederson said.

The skills for jobs in aircraft maintenance, composites manufacturing, electronics and avionics carry over to other industries. For example, a person studying composites manufacturing “could work on automobiles, on boats, on medical devices. Look at the sporting goods now using carbon fiber,” she said.

While she hopes Boeing stays, if it eventually leaves, “there’s always something else that would come along,” Brederson said.

At Everett Community College’s Paine Field facility, Shawn Wright, one of the students working on the wooden wing, said he’s confident about having a job in aerospace for decades to come.

“It’s still a field that’ll be in high demand down the road,” the 32-year-old said.

Wright worked at Woodinville Lumber until it closed a couple years ago. Now, his goal after he finishes the program next August is to land across the street at Boeing’s Everett facility, where it produces the 747, 767, 777 and 787 lines.

While Western Washington has one of the highest concentrations of aerospace employment in the country, students can find work around the world.

One Everett Community College graduate does maintenance for medical flights in remote areas of South Africa, said Bill Loomis, the former director of the school’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program. “You’re pretty much only limited by your imagination.”

Many of his former students ended up at Boeing, where he also worked for several years on the 777 flight line.

He remains an associate instructor at the school and administers tests for Federal Aviation Administration aircraft and powerplant certification, which mechanics need for work.

“It’s two days of testing” — written tests followed by oral and practical exams, he said.

Like Wright, Coby Young will take the test next year.

The 20-year-old said he’s always been drawn to mechanical things and took apart his first engine in the seventh grade. “I took it apart, but whether it ran when I put it back together, that’s another thing.”

He was drawn to aerospace work because “it’s the only thing I heard of where you could work on things and make a good living,” Young said.

Of course, countless people across the country want aerospace jobs for the same reasons.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

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