Caroline Powers and Amy Tibet (right) work at Orion Industries, a nonprofit that combines commercial work with a social mission, on Dec. 20 in Mukilteo. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Mukilteo aerospace supplier has a social-service mission, too

MUKILTEO — Walk through Orion Industries’ Mukilteo plant and you’ll see airplane innards — wire bundles, part of a light fixture for front-landing gear, air vents. They are some of the roughly 2 million parts its manufacturing division provides to Boeing and other aerospace companies.

Unlike its competitors, Orion Industries is not simply serving its bottom line. It is a nonprofit that combines commercial success with a social mission. The Auburn-based company provides counseling and job training for people who have challenges to landing a job on their own, challenges such as neurological, developmental or psychological disabilities.

Trainees may have had trouble in the job market, but Orion is not about hand-holding or creating busy work, said Tom Brosius, its vice president and general manager. “To bring in a program participant, they have to be creating value pretty quickly” on balance.

Despite its social mission, Orion has to competitively bid against local and international companies for work. Its products are on every Boeing commercial and military airplane. It also provides parts to other airplane makers — including Bombardier, Airbus and Gulfstream — and major aerospace suppliers such as Triumph, Spirit Aerospace and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Orion was named a Boeing Supplier of the Year in 2011 and 2015.

“The main thing is to get parts out on time” and to spec, said Rodney Goodwin, a machinist in the Mukilteo plant. “We do quality work.”

Sometimes that means a rush job turning out a spare part for an aircraft stranded on the ground. It has to be done quickly and properly.

The company has a simple philosophy when assessing newcomers for training. “Everybody’s good at something. Most people aren’t good at everything,” Brosius said.

Some people learn machine tooling and get manufacturing jobs. Others learn customer service and find work at a restaurant. Some find jobs at Orion. In 2015, 56 percent of participants went into manufacturing and production, 15 percent into customer service and 29 percent into other industries — including one carpenter, a bus driver and an IT consultant.

The company has a call center in Auburn that has about 70 employees, including 12 people from Orion’s training program. The company handles calls for major clients, such as Microsoft and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“If you need a fishing license at 3 a.m., you’ll talk to someone at Orion,” Brosius said.

Orion has about 400 employees, and serves more than 300 people a year. It acquired the Mukilteo plant in September when it merged with Diversified Industrial Services, a nonprofit with a similar mission.

Orion Industries was founded in 1957 by several south King County families who had relatives with disabilities that limited their options. They started making wooden toys in a church basement, Brosius said.

“A lot of the families were Boeing families,” and within two years, Orion was making parts for the 707, Boeing’s first jetliner, he said.

Most participants now are referred to Orion by two state agencies: the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Both are under the Department of Social and Health Services.

They are matched with training programs that best fit their strengths and weaknesses. They are assigned mentors, who provide on-the-job training. They also receive counseling and other support along the way and after landing a job.

The need to have someone be a mentor and a worker can make it hard to fill openings, especially for high-skill jobs.

“We’re asking a machinist to do their work and train somebody. It’s a pretty unusual combination of skills,” Brosius said. But “it’s an opportunity you can’t find anywhere else” in the region.

That is one reason Orion has such low turnover — about 8 percent a year, he said.

The company is in the process of expanding its aerospace manufacturing training to Mukilteo. Currently, it is only in Auburn.

Teaching technical skills is relatively straightforward. Teaching how to show up on time and with the right attitude is trickier. Brosius said. “It’s always the soft skills that require the most work.”

Building confidence and self-esteem are critical steps, as well. “Self-esteem is number one. Pretty much everyone who walks in the door has gotten here through bad choices or bad luck. It hasn’t been a good ride,” he said.

Mentors know that and make sure to give students opportunities to succeed.

“We’re going to work with them until they get it right,” he said. “There are no free rides.”

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

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