By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer
The Boeing Co.’s decision in late 2011 to build its new 737 MAX airliner in Renton with Machinists union ratification of a four-year contract extension drew a sigh of relief from economic development leaders in the Puget Sound area, but Economic Alliance Snohomish County Executive Director Troy McClelland said vaulting that hurdle was just the beginning.
Like many economic development groups in the state, EASC had launched a collaborative effort to keep the undeclared site for building the 737 MAX in Washington state, preferably by moving its assembly to Snohomish County where Boeing already builds its 747, 767, 777 and 787 airliners.
Texas and California wanted to build the new 737. Within Washington state, there was widespread speculation that the re-engined jet could be built in Snohomish County, perhaps at Paine Field or on light-industrial land between Arlington and Marysville.
Then, on Nov. 30, Boeing and the International Association of Machinists announced a surprise decision to build the 737 MAX in Renton, where 737s have been built for four decades.
Bundled with that announcement was agreement on a new four-year labor contract between the Machinists and Boeing, well ahead of the existing contract’s expiration in September 2012, plus the union’s decision to drop its National Labor Relations Board complaint against Boeing for building its second 787 assembly line in South Carolina. IAM members ratified the contract by a 74 percent margin.
On Dec. 13, 2011, Southwest Airlines placed a firm order for 150 737 MAXes and 58 other 737s valued at $19 billion.
Although Boeing has hundreds of tentative commitments from other carriers, Southwest is the first to place a firm order, making the Dallas-based airline the MAX’s launch customer. Southwest will take the first 737 MAX to be delivered in 2017.
The Boeing-Machinists announcement came only weeks after EASC had launched its new Snohomish County economic development efforts, focusing on collaboration with state and local officials to land 737 MAX production in Washington state to bolster its long-held reputation as a global aerospace hub.
Now that’s been resolved with Boeing and Machinists leadership setting a newly cooperative tone.
“That was really super news for the state and our region and, I think, a real statement about the power of partnership,” McClelland said. “It’s great news for economic development and for strengthening support for aerospace. But that’s only a great first step.”
He said he’s “optimistic that the new siting decision and contract agreement is a step toward continuing cooperation between the union and the company. … It’s also a great event for a state (and county) that wants to remain a viable location for aerospace development and enhance our reputation as the best place for more aerospace.”
Even after news of Boeing’s 737 MAX assembly site decision, McClelland emphasized that much work remains.
“To really remain competitive, we need to accept and implement the governor’s initiatives in the Legislature and follow up on education and training programs that the Washington Aerospace Partnership has been encouraging,” McClelland said, referencing the statewide group that has been working with business, labor and political leaders to maintain and grow Washington’s valuable aerospace clusters.
“Now that the site for the 737MAX has been chosen, there is still much to do to assure Washington’s strong competitive aerospace position,” he said. “Landing the manufacturing site for new 737 MAX means much more than just achieving that single goal.
“Our broader, long-range focus is on aerospace workforce development, from short-term skills to four-year engineering degrees through Washington State University’s new presence at Everett Community College’s University Center.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s $9.8 million plan to boost aerospace training in the state will be presented to the Legislature this year. It would finance a new Governor’s Aerospace Office, expand aerospace curriculum at 12 high schools and contribute $7.6 million to enroll 775 more engineering students at the University of Washington and Washington State University, particularly through WSU’s new Everett programs.
Throughout the state, an estimated 230,000 people work for Boeing, their suppliers or in the aerospace industry in general, McClellan said, ticking off facts from the Washington Aerospace Partnership.
“We’re focusing on both short-term and longtime workforce development to create a technologically superior workforce from the factory floor up to engineering to train people to work with new composite materials and revolutionary technology such as biofuels,” he said.
Apprenticeship programs need to be created and expanded, including ones in Snohomish County, he said, so that such things as lean manufacturing techniques, composites development and other programs can be taught in high schools and colleges.
Preparing for an expanded aerospace workforce, he said, means reaching out to sectors such as research and development, engineering, intellectual properties, computer sciences and the environment.
“EASC is a very strong advocate for these types of programs but much of the emphasis on technology and aerospace needs to be in high schools, with more emphasis on math, science and skills needed for careers in robotics, motivating youth and preparing them for their future in the workplace,” he said. “We’re in a good position to continue to win aerospace projects but we have very specific things to address to maintain our role as a comprehensive place for aerospace manufacturing.”
Herald Writer Michelle Dunlop contributed to this story.