In Our View: Helping People Fly

It’s our specialty here in Washington state, and we must expand the skilled workforce

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Ever since 1916, when the “Pacific Aero Products Co.” of Seattle was launched by a man whose name would become iconic, Washingtonians have done a good job of helping people get off the ground and stay there for extended periods of time. Building airplanes is what we do. William E. Boeing triggered the tradition almost a century ago, and today more than 83,000 Washingtonians work in the aerospace industry. More than 1,000 of them work for 18 aerospace-related companies in Clark County.

Extending that tradition is crucial to the state’s economy, and the challenge is two-fold. There’s the projected increase in global demand for airplanes. And the retirement of a large portion of the aerospace workforce will help create the need for 21,000 new workers.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was in Vancouver on Tuesday to discuss this dual challenge with local leaders. Many of the solutions do not require large investments of tax dollars. For example, job-shadow opportunities and internships should be encouraged at aerospace companies. Insitu — the Bingen-based manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles — welcomes middle-school students to observe workers on the job and sets up internships for 60 college students, 10 of whom are hired each year. At Clark College, new apprenticeship programs in aerospace fields are being considered.

Other low-cost ways to promote aerospace jobs in Washington include bolstering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs that already exist in about 30 school districts across Southwest Washington.

Ultimately, though, substantial commitment of tax dollars will be needed, and it’s not to soon to think about strategies to unleash after the economic crisis and during the recovery. Boeing officials have said companies around the world will be ordering 33,000 new commercial aircraft over the next two decades. That production demand will be met somewhere, and it’s up to Washingtonians to make sure it happens here, at the epicenter of the aerospace industry (one-sixth of the nation’s aerospace workers live in our state).

Two weeks ago, Sens. Cantwell and Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced a $20 million training program for 2,600 aerospace workers-to-be. Coordinating that program will be Air Washington, a consortium of 14 community and technical colleges and several aerospace training organizations. That is the kind of collaboration that will help Washington maintain its dominance of the industry.

The best part of Washington’s stature in the aerospace industry is the fact that the field is ever-changing. Visionary designers and expert engineers will always be needed. So, too, will highly skilled assembly plant workers.

Maintaining and replenishing that workforce is vital, and part of continuing the tradition can be accomplished by those who are retiring. Why let them walk out the door and turn their backs on long and exciting careers and leave behind all that knowledge and experience? Better to use it to the benefit of their successors; put those retirees to work part-time as instructors, trainers and mentors.

Cantwell understands the importance of this challenge. “We need to act now to ready a 21st-century skilled workforce that Southwest Washington aerospace employers like Insitu depend on,” she noted in a written statement. “This is a pivotal point for the competitiveness of America’s aerospace industry. … We need to make the right decisions today to create aerospace jobs now — and for our children.”

We don’t know if William E. Boeing fully realized the magnitude of what he was starting back in 1916. But as the centennial of his effort nears, we know what it will take to sustain the momentum.