EVERETT — On a late September day during his work rotations with Pathfinder Manufacturing, student Jacob Faulkner slid a paper-thin piece of metal under a rivet on an airplane blowout panel to check for gaps.
Blowout panels relieve extra pressure when compression changes, so the body of the airplane doesn’t get damaged, the 18-year-old Legacy High School student explained to a Daily Herald reporter during a site visit. If there is too much space between the fastener and the metal, the part could become defective.
The panel Faulkner was working on could likely end up on one of Boeing’s passenger airplanes, so it needs to be done correctly, he said.
That level of quality control has landed Pathfinder on an elite list of Boeing suppliers. And high school students like Faulkner have a significant hand in making and checking those parts as participants of Pathfinder’s vocational training program.
“It’s not that they are learning to build a model. They are actually learning to make the actual product that gets shipped out to customers,” said Andrew Vuong, director of business development.
For more than 30 years, the Everett-based nonprofit has partnered with more than 35 high schools in the North Puget Sound region. Most of the students come from schools in Snohomish County, and all of Pathfinder’s teen staff qualify for special education courses at their school.
“The whole mission of what we are trying to do is provide our students with the skillsets to boost their confidence, as well as help them finish high school,” Vuong said. “A lot of them are typically not on track to graduate. These kids are all on IEPs, so they all have individualized education plans due to some sort of disability.”
The students spend half their school day on shift at Pathfinder and half in the classroom at their respective high schools. In both places, they earn course credits required to graduate.
“We really want to help at-risk kids and kids with learning disabilities,” said Tina McKean, director of student services at Pathfinder. “These are kids that need something different than a regular school class, someone who needs more hands on (engagement).”
Many of the Pathfinder students are “super seniors” who lacked the number of credits they needed to graduate on time, so they are taking senior year over again. The vocational program gives them a chance to make up credits, earn their diploma and build job skills.
Pathfinder graduates become extremely employable, said CEO Dave Trader.
“It’s a real job. It’s a real experience, and it’s really good,” Trader said of the program. “We have a lot of students who are now at Boeing.”
Most students get referred to the program by their school counselors or special education teachers. McKean said Pathfinder works with about 15 school districts across the region, including Mukilteo, Marysville and Snohomish.
The number of spots available depends on how many work contracts Pathfinder has with commercial and military companies that buy its products. The nonprofit makes parts for a range of industries, including aerospace, space, defense, automotive and maritime. Some of its partners include Boeing, PACCAR and LifePort.
Before the pandemic, the program hosted upward of 100 students per year. This year, about 40 students are participating. Trader said the nonprofit is still recovering from the economic downturn caused by COVID and has fewer contracts this year, meaning fewer spots for students.
“We have a wait list, but it’s so work-based,” Trader said. “The more contracts we have, the more students we can serve.”
Students spend the first six weeks of the program in an on-site classroom at the Pathfinder building near Paine Field. There, they take lessons on safety and manufacturing basics, including how to read engineering drawings, how to assemble parts and wire and how to use specialized machines.
Once they score 85% or higher on the tests for each lesson, they move to “the floor,” where they work with adult mentors to actually build the parts.
Pathfinder is part of Boeing’s “Premier Bidder Program,” said business development director Vuong. Those bidders get special marketing and priority to increase their business with the prestigious aerospace company. Vuong said the nonprofit is considered a top tier “silver level supplier” for the quality of its products.
“Everything is tested prior to being sent out, so we have a very high quality standard,” he said. “That’s why we are part of the Boeing Premier Bidder Program, which is an elite program that’s only given to around 200 Boeing suppliers, compared to the over 10,000-plus that they use.”
While they are at Pathfinder, students are treated like regular employees and held to the same standards, Trader said. They earn minimum wage.
“Even though they are students, they are still part of the team, because that’s the only way it works,” he said. “They take a lot of pride in their work. They ask a lot of questions.”
Near the end of the program, the teens work with McKean, the student services director, to make a resume and write cover letters. McKean also helps them with employment applications or practice for job interviews.
“(Last year), the ones I worked with all got jobs at places they wanted to be, so I really saw them flourish,” McKean said. “At the beginning of the job search, several of them … were very unsure. So it was very cool to see them walk through that process.”
Faulkner, the Legacy High student, said Pathfinder has increased his confidence and independence. He jokes with his friends that he gets paid to go to school now, and he decides how to spend his money.
He said he usually uses his paychecks to buy books from Amazon.
On a more serious note, Faulkner said that learning at Pathfinder is “less boring” than school. It’s easier for him to pay attention when he’s on the job. And he is learning practical skills that will help him get a job in a machine shop after he graduates.
“It’s raised my confidence a lot,” Faulkner said. “But at the same time, it gives me a little bit of anxiety because I’m worried I may mess something up. We’re liable for the parts we build for the next 20 years.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.