Prosperity takes teamwork

Recent economic news offers reason to feel bullish — if you remember how.

Nationally, the economy grew at its strongest pace in a year and a half last quarter, the Commerce Department announced Friday.

Snohomish County’s unemployment rate dropped last month to 8.2 percent, the lowest in three years.

Aerospace companies have added 6,700 jobs in the county over the past year. The Boeing Co.’s outlook, bolstered by a four-year deal with its Machinists union, a long backlog of orders, production of the new 737 MAX in Renton and the Air Force refueling tanker in Everett, lays a foundation in Puget Sound for others to envy.

But we’re hardly out of the economic woods. Most forecasts see a bumpy ride ahead this year. The challenge for our region is to build on the current momentum.

A recent forum of local leaders from business, government and education, organized by the Economic Alliance Snohomish County, confirmed a healthy recognition that it can only happen by working together — forming partnerships that seek to turn our county into a hub of innovation in advanced technology and manufacturing, and create a highly trained workforce to support it.

Education is critical, of course. Our universities are turning away applicants for high-cost engineering programs. Without a renewed, statewide commitment to higher education funding, good-paying jobs of the future that require technical skills won’t have a local workforce to support them.

That’s a long-term need, set against a near-term state budget crisis. Still, progress can begin now by having the Legislature approve Gov. Chris Gregoire’s $9 million proposal to invest in engineering slots and a research center at Washington State University and the University of Washington. (Some of those engineering slots would be filled by WSU at the University Center in Everett.)

Training for jobs in the trades is critically important, too. Cyndi Bajema, vice president of Esterline Control Systems, noted that companies like hers require skilled tool makers, but interest in that field, and in machining generally, is lacking. The Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center offers high school students important career pathways, but Bajema also called for shop classes to return to high school campuses.

Indeed, the skilled workers we’ll need in a decade are currently in middle or elementary school. Their imaginations and career ambitions need to be stoked now.

It’s also critical that business, government and education leaders keep talking about how to achieve their mutual goals. The Washington Aerospace Partnership has been one successful venue, and the new Economic Alliance Snohomish County will be, too.

Former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, a co-founder of the Washington Aerospace Partnership, suggested city and county councils could regularly set aside time at public meetings to exchange ideas with business and education leaders.

It’s a great idea — keep widening the conversation. And keep the future of aerospace, advanced technology and manufacturing high on the Snohomish County agenda. Prosperity won’t appear on its own.

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