Spokane Journal of Business

Apprenticeships for aerospace

State-funded body aims to pass advanced manufacturing skills to next generation

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Apprenticeships for aerospace
-—Staff photo by Mike McLean
Apprentice Jeremy Slack demonstrates milling equipment in Spokane Community College's lab. He works at Multifab Inc.

A Washington state training initiative that aims to sustain and enhance aerospace manufacturing skills has launched an apprenticeship program here, which it plans to expand, says the Spokane Valley-based Eastern Washington program coordinator.

The Aerospace Training Initiative, led by the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, combines on-the-job training with supplemental instruction to pass along advanced manufacturing skills, which are said to be at risk of being lost as the population ages and skilled workers retire.

Here, seven aerospace-machinist apprentices are completing their first year of a four-year training and education program developed by the AJAC program, says Kevin Quinn, program coordinator at AJAC's Eastern Washington office, at 2110 N. Fancher.

More than a dozen Spokane-area businesses have signed up for the program. Those companies include Proto Technologies Inc., Haskins Steel Co., Eastside Electric Motors LLC, Jetseal Inc., K&N Electric Motors Inc., L&M Precision Fabrication Inc., Multifab Inc., Newmax Inc., Rocky Mountain Machining LLC., Romney Motion Inc., and Spokane Airways Inc.

Some of the companies currently have people in the program, and the rest will enter candidates in it as they're ready to train them, Quinn says.

AJAC plans to start a similar program here as soon as next year to train apprentices in aircraft mechanics, he says.

Unlike other training programs, enrollees in AJAC's apprenticeship programs have to be employed full time.

"We try to assemble a prescreened, prequalified group of people," Quinn says. "We work with businesses to encourage them to let employees participate in the program."

The nonprofit, state-funded committee is comprised of industry leaders and experts and employee representatives. The Legislature created the committee in 2008 to promote the transfer of advanced manufacturing skills that have helped the state's aerospace manufacturing workforce remain competitive since the rise of Boeing Co., starting during World War I.

Through the program, apprentices commit to 8,000 hours of training over the course of four years, 93 percent of which is paid on-the-job training supervised by a journey-level mentor. The rest of the training is classroom work, which the apprentice is responsible for funding, although some participating businesses reimburse employees for the classroom costs.

AJAC conducts a four-hour classroom session one night a week on the Spokane Community College campus, where apprentices have access to the college's machine shop, computer labs, and classrooms.

"We rent whatever venue is right for us," Quinn says, adding however, "It's our curriculum and our instructors."

Instructors have work backgrounds in the fields they teach, he says.

Eric Bouvier, the classroom instructor for AJAC's aerospace machinist apprentice program in Spokane, says the program here is still in its infancy.

"We're just getting started," says Bouvier. By day, he's also the machining and computer numerically controlled technology instructor at SCC, and he has 11 years of experience in a prototype manufacturing shop.

"Demand is high for machinists, and a model is in place to increase the number of apprentices," he says.

Bouvier says he fields inquiries every week from businesses looking for machinists. "I just got a call a few days ago from someone looking for up to 10 machinists," he says, although he declined to name the caller because he hasn't seen a published listing for the jobs.

The classroom work mirrors an associate degree offered by the community colleges, and the AJAC is working with colleges to couple college credit with journeyman credentials as part of the apprenticeship program.

Bouvier says he expects the AJAC machinist-apprentice program here will continue to grow.

"Students can come in at different starting points," he says. "I sure would like to see it add a second instructor, so we can run a first- and second-year group with one instructor and a third- and fourth-year group with another."

Two of the apprentices currently enrolled in the AJAC program work at Proto Technologies Inc., a Liberty Lake prototype manufacturer.

Rory Nay, Proto Technologies' president, says the program helps the company address a chronic machinist shortage from within.

"I'm always looking for machinists of quality—not just button pushers," she says. "I had to say, 'Heck, I'll grow my own.'"

Proto Technologies, located at 22808 E. Appleway, makes custom parts, models, patterns, and molds that its clients work with in the course of refining a concept into a physical product. The company's clients serve the aerospace, medical, electronic, and manufacturing industries.

The company employs 40 people, 10 of whom are journey-level machinists.

Nay says the company is paying for the outside classroom work while the employees continue to work full time.

"This way, they have good-paying jobs now, and they don't have to give up those funds" for school, she says.

The aerospace apprenticeship program serves companies of all sizes and doesn't differentiate between union and nonunion operations. Quinn says it's ideal for participation by companies that don't have resources to set up their own training programs.

Graduates of the AJAC program receive state-certified journey-level cards attesting to their skill levels.

The aerospace apprenticeship program takes four years, while the conventional education and training through a vocational school, such as a community college, usually takes two years. Instructional fees and costs under the aerospace apprenticeship program are about half the cost of community college tuition, Quinn says.

AJAC supplements its apprenticeship programs with a mobile training unit—a 53-foot-long classroom on wheels—that's outfitted with the most up-to-date equipment for aerospace-manufacturing design, production, and inspection, he says.

Equipment in the mobile training unit includes a coordinate-measuring machine, which uses a laser or mechanical probes to measure the geometrical characteristics an object and to test whether the object meets its design intent, and a portable device called a Romer arm that can measure large or immobile objects.

Other apprenticeships AJAC has developed and is offering on the West Side include aircraft airframe mechanic, aircraft interior assembly mechanic, composite manufacturing specialist, industrial controls technician, and tool and die maker.

In all, more than 70 companies based in Washington, or that have operations in the state, have signed onto the Aerospace Training Initiative as training agents.

Mike McLean
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Reporter Mike McLean covers real estate and construction at the Journal of Business. A multipurpose fisherman and vintage record album aficionado, Mike has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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