Boeing public image plays a big role in interest in aerospace training

EVERETT — Four years on, Washington’s showcase effort to train aerospace workers is quietly feeding the industry new talent and helping the under-skilled get family-wage manufacturing jobs.

David Han signed up for a course at the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center (WATR) at Paine Field after 10 years in customer service. The Lynnwood resident knew he didn’t want to sit behind a desk, and, with a young daughter, he needed a career to support his family.

He has two weeks left in the three month course, and like most WATR students, Han, 32, is focused on landing at the Boeing Co., which assembles wide-body jetliners just north of the school.

“They don’t want to just grab anyone off the street. If you have something like the WATR program behind you, it is a lot easier to get your foot in the door,” Han said as he took a break from drilling two steel plates together.

“As you’re drilling, the plates need to be perfectly aligned or you can get burrs in between the plates,” Han explained. “That’s not good.”

Machinists assembling metal-skin jetliners drill thousands of rivet holes. The slightest mistakes on the assembly line can lead to costly — and, in the worst case, deadly — consequences later on if they are not corrected.

Han isn’t alone in looking to Boeing for work.

“That’s the goal,” said Mike Stein.

The 24-year-old moved from San Jose, California, to enroll at WATR and — hopefully — get a job at Boeing.

He will look at other aerospace manufacturing companies after he finishes the WATR course later this month, but, he said, he is not familiar with any other businesses.

“Boeing is the best-known company,” Stein said.

With more than 80,000 employees in Washington, the Chicago-based company does make up the bulk of the state’s aerospace workforce, which was about 94,000 in 2012, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the Washington Aerospace Partnership.

About 38,000 had jobs related to aerospace, according to the report.

So many students are focused on Boeing, school administrators said, that public perception of the company’s fortunes affect enrollment at WATR, which offers courses at Paine Field and in Renton.

Interest in courses dropped after Boeing announced in July 2013 that it would lay off about 800 machinists.

“We got over that scare, and what happens?” said Larry Cluphf, WATR’s director. “We get into the 777X scare, and everyone thinks Boeing is moving out of the state.”

That, of course, was never the case. The company considered basing final assembly of the new 777X jetliner in other states. However, plenty of elected lawmakers — including members of Congress and the governor — spread the perception that the aerospace giant was already packed to pull out of Washington.

Enrollment declined at WATR, but it has risen in the first half of this year, especially after Boeing announced that final assembly and wing fabrication for the 777X will be at the company’s Everett plant, Cluphf said.

Monthly enrollment numbers were not immediately available. But demand for low-interest tuition loans from the state reflects the enrollment trend, he said.

During the previous school year, for example, the state approved 185 loans out of 372 applications from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013.

However, during the next five months, the state only got 36 applications and approved 16 loans.

Demand has increased since. As of June 9, the state has received 100 applications and approved 56 awards since last July.

The boost is a combination of growing enrollment and reduced requirements for the Aerospace Loan Program.

In March, the state lowered some of the loan requirements and made application materials easier to find online.

“The website was difficult to navigate,” said Raphael Madison, WATR’s head of sales and marketing.

Changes included easing criteria regarding an applicant’s criminal background, credit score and financial need. The language used in the online materials were also softened to be less intimidating, said Rachelle Sharpe, an administrator with the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the loan program.

Even with the changes, the program is on track to use a small fraction of the $1.25 million allocated by the Legislature. The average award is $4,800. At that rate, the 56 loans granted this year would add up to $268,800.

Han received one of the loans. His wife filled out the application and told him it was easy, he said.

Applicants are overwhelmingly men without children and live in Snohomish and King counties. More than 40 percent are 18 to 25 years old, and about 65 percent are younger than 35, according to state data.

Since opening in June 2010, more than 2,100 students have finished WATR programs. Most — about 57 percent — do end up at Boeing, Cluphf said.

According to state data, nearly 80 percent of graduates who applied for work after finishing a WATR program had been hired.

WATR invites recruiters from aerospace companies to meet students, Madison said.

Some students have little experience with looking for a serious job, he said. During one session with a recruiter, “one student raised his hand, started talking about his drug history and asked if that was a problem.”

The school has hired more counselors to work with students on filling out applications, navigating interviews, writing resumes and other job-hunting skills.

“We continue to work with any student who goes through the program until they find a job,” he said.

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

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