EVERETT— For more than 30 years, Pathfinder Manufacturing has been teaching at-risk high school students how to build parts for commercial jets and military aircraft.
Two years ago, Dominique Gonzalez, who attended Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, was one of those students.
Now she’s a full-time assembly mechanic at Pathfinder’s Everett factory.
“I like it because it’s hands-on work,” said Gonzalez, who was deburring the rough edges of a metal airplane part.
She’s not alone. More than a third of the company’s 64 full-time workers are former students who took part in the program, Pathfinder CEO David Trader said.
Students from schools in Snohomish, King and Island counties spend fifteen hours per week at Pathfinder, where they earn high school credits and, most importantly, are paid for their work.
“We start them in the classroom for four to six weeks, and then they start building aerospace parts for all of Boeing’s commercial and military aircraft,” Trader said.
On Tuesday, Gonzalez told about a dozen visitors from the Association of Washington Business she’s proud to be part of the airplane industry. The trade group serves as the state’s manufacturing association, representing 7,000 companies across the state.
The company has 36 students in the program this fall but hopes to bump that up to 50 next year, Trader said.
Pathfinder’s program is the kind of community investment that’s helping boost the state’s manufacturing sector, said Kris Johnson, the association’s president.
The trade group is conducting its seventh annual Manufacturing Week bus tour to highlight the state’s manufacturing sector. The statewide excursion kicked off on Oct. 6, National Manufacturing Day.
On Tuesday, the bus visited Pathfinder, as well as Mukilteo furniture maker Kaas Tailored.
“We’ve visited a human waste-to-energy company, a boat builder, a hay exporter in Ellensburg, a cabinetmaker,” Johnson said. “The diversity of manufacturing is amazing.”
In stops along the way, Johnson is urging policymakers to ease taxes and complex regulations making “it more expensive to manufacture in Washington.”
In 2021, the state Legislature unanimously passed a bill aiming to double the number of manufacturing jobs in Washington and double the number of women- and minority-owned manufacturing firms around the state by 2031. Achieving those goals would raise annual output to $126 billion and increase employment to half a million people.
One in five Snohomish County jobs
The state’s manufacturing sector currently has an annual output of $63 billion and employs nearly 270,000 Washingtonians, or 8% of the state’s total workforce. On average, those workers earn $97,600 a year, according to the association.
Nearly one in five jobs in Snohomish County is a manufacturing job, among the highest percentage in the state, according to the Office of Financial Management.
The county’s manufacturing sector includes 811 companies, employing more than 50,000 workers who earn an average of $109,000 a year, according to a 2022 Employment Security Department report.
Despite the comfortable average salary, manufacturers are having a tough time hiring enough workers. One-third of Washington manufacturers have open jobs they are struggling to fill, an association survey said.
“You schedule five interviews and one shows,” Trader, the Pathfinder CEO, told visitors.
Jeff Kaas, the second-generation owner of Kaas Tailored, faces a similar challenge. The Mukilteo furniture company makes commercial furnishings and aerospace furniture — from airplane seats to pillows designed to make spacecrafts more comfortable.
The company is on a mission to “equip and maintain” its 155 workers, Kass said.
”Equip people to do cool stuff and send them into new assignments,” Kass said. “People who like what we do stick around for awhile.”
The formula worked for My Luu Dau, who has worked at Kass for 41 years.
“I came to work cutting and sewing and now I’m a designer for aerospace designs,” said Dau, who was stitching an airplane seatback on a heavy duty sewing machine. “People ask me when I’m going to retire and I say: ‘Why retire, I love my job!’”
Founded in 1974, Kass Tailored, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
Team-building efforts inside its bright 66,000-square-foot factory focus on “trying new stuff to see if it works” and learning new skills, Kaas said.
For Tyler Hagens, the firm’s business development manager, there’s no substitute for the sense of accomplishment that comes with building something.
“Manufacturing adds tremendous value to a community,” Hagens said. “You get to see the work you’re producing. We can’t just be based on tech.”
Washington is a trade-driven state, Johnson said.
“I like to tell people, ‘Have a nice Washington products day,” Johnson said.
“You get up in the morning and have a cup of Starbucks, you order from Amazon, shop at Costco, fly on a Boeing plane and have your supplies delivered on a truck built by Paccar,” Johnson added. “How many other states can say that?”