A fight we can’t afford to lose

Even in the face of a $1.4 billion state budget shortfall, some new investments are absolutely necessary.

Case in point: Gov. Chris Gregoire’s $9.8 million plan to help win production of Boeing’s new 737 MAX. Most of the money is focused on education and training, an effort to maintain Washington’s biggest edge in the multi-state battle for Boeing production: its highly skilled aerospace workforce.

This investment is about more than winning the 737 MAX. It’s about taking the necessary steps to make Washington competitive for future generations of Boeing planes, including the next 777.

The aerospace sector remains the chief fuel for private-sector jobs in our region. The thousands of high-paying jobs it produces ripple in a very positive way throughout our economy. The region’s prosperity, and a healthy state budget, depend on a vigorous, local aerospace industry.

Gregoire proposes putting $7.6 million toward added capacity for engineering students at the University of Washington and Washington State University. That would help bolster engineering programs that WSU is preparing to launch next fall at University Center at Everett Community College, said Bob Olsen, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the university’s College of Engineering and Architecture.

Gregoire’s plan also includes money for creating an aerospace research center at UW and WSU, enhanced training programs for recent high school graduates and veterans, and an aerospace curriculum in 12 high schools. She also proposed extending by 10 years an existing business tax incentive for the aerospace industry, which currently is set to expire in 2024.

This is the kind of long-term thinking in which leaders at the state and local levels need to be engaged. Our aerospace workforce is aging; as much as 50 percent of the engineering component is within a few years of retirement. The pipeline of new engineers is underdeveloped, after years of neglect in higher education funding.

The governor’s plan is based on recommendations in a study by the consulting firm Accenture, which also includes suggestions for further investments over the next two years to strengthen the state’s long-term competitiveness.

One that stands out is creating a Cabinet-level aerospace office, led by an industry expert, that would help coordinate and focus state and local economic-development efforts.

Accenture says that Renton, the current home of 737 production, is the leading contender to land the 737 MAX. Starting up a new facility at this point, in a region without a proven workforce, would be risky for Boeing — unless, the study notes, the company fears a strike that could throw off production schedules here.

The greatest danger may be our own complacency. Indeed, the investments the governor proposes should be considered a starting point — a down payment on more to come.

Even amid a budget crisis, the Legislature must acknowledge the fundamental importance of aerospace to our region’s future. We’re in a battle we can’t afford to lose.

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