Spokane Journal of Business

Aerospace industry searches for skilled workers

Labor gap looms as many workers near retirement

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-—Katie Ross
Spokane Community College student Austin French says he hopes to go into corporate aircraft maintenance once he graduates with a degree in aircraft maintenance technology.

As demand for aerospace products rises worldwide, the industry here and across the state is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, and the gap could continue to widen, industry leaders here say. 

Mike Marzetta, president of Liberty Lake-based Altek Inc. and a board member with the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium (INWAC), says the aerospace industry has doubled in size in the Spokane area in the last three or four years, in terms of companies that have become certified in various areas of aerospace manufacturing.

“The good thing about aerospace is that its 20- to 30-year forecast just keeps going up,” Marzetta says. 

As part of that growth, the U.S. Economic Development Administration announced late last month that Washington state’s aerospace industry has been designated one of a dozen “manufacturing communities” around the country. Through that designation, the aerospace industry here will be eligible for future federal economic development funding.  

The designation was awarded as a result of a proposal submitted by the Puget Sound Regional Council. The council claims that Washington state has the largest aerospace business cluster in the world; according to the Washington state Department of Commerce, the state currently boasts 1,350 aerospace companies and roughly 132,500 workers. 

However, the industry’s continued growth is leading to a shortage of skilled labor. Marzetta says that the worker shortage has eased a bit in recent years, but is expected to pick back up. 

“It’s already large, let’s put it that way,” he says. “It’s gotten significantly better, but it’s difficult in all industries to hire somebody that one would consider to be skilled.”

Another factor contributing to the labor gap is that a large number of current aerospace workers are reaching retirement age. In March, Dennis Muilenburg, president and chief operating officer of Chicago-based Boeing Co., told a U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee that half the company’s engineers and mechanics would be eligible for retirement in the next five years. At the same hearing, the Transportation Trades Department announced that one-third of the Federal Aviation Administration workforce is now eligible for retirement. 

Along with the aging workforce, Marzetta says, the perception of labor jobs has changed since the aerospace industry first began. 

“The guys that are retiring now, they’re the apprenticeship generation, so back then they actually had a thing in place to prepare the workforce,” Marzetta says. “So not only are we going to need to replace those guys, they came up in a generation when skilled trades were highly valued in society … the pay is really good, but the industry still struggles with perception. I mean we’re making high-tech stuff here.”

Technology is another factor affecting the pool of skilled labor, Marzetta says. The kinds and uses of technology in the industry are changing constantly, he says, which can leave school and training programs struggling to catch up. 

To combat the skilled labor shortage, the aerospace industry is mainly looking to the education systems, both statewide and locally, Marzetta says.

“To some degree, the education is adapting,” he says. “As I look at the statewide education system, it’s adapting—slow and fragmented—but they’re doing a pretty good job.” 

In the Spokane area, educators seem to be taking an interest in aerospace and placing a greater emphasis on providing students with the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) foundation that jobs in that industry sector require, Marzetta says. 

“Locally, there’s a tremendous amount of positive things happening,” Marzetta says, in terms of schools embracing STEM programs. As examples, he cites programs at Spokane Valley Tech, Riverpoint Academy in Mead, and the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy, among others. 

“Most of the engineering programs within middle and high school are responding pretty actively and proactively,” Marzetta says. “We’ve just got a great community for this thing. The community in a sense is working with and around the bureaucracy to make this thing happen.”

The Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA), a Redmond, Wash.-based nonprofit agency aimed at promoting the aerospace industry, has offered a scholarship program to aerospace college students since 2009. Students enrolled in aerospace programs at participating schools are eligible for a minimum of $1,000. For 2014, the organization awarded $33,450 in scholarships to 22 students, with a goal of $50,000 for 2015. 

Melanie Jordan, executive director of the PNAA, says the scholarship funds come from regional aerospace companies. She says the companies choose which community college or trade school to support and the school chooses the student. 

“Spokane Community College was a recipient (this year) and we hope to expand the reach on the east side of the mountains in the future,” Jordan says. “As the donor base expands, so will the community college choices.”

Austin French, a student at Spokane Community College and the recipient of one of PNAA’s scholarships there, is set to complete his two-year associate degree in aviation maintenance technology this year. 

“I’ve always loved working with my hands and fixing things, whether it’s computers, cars, even household things,” French says. 

He says he learned about PNAA’s scholarship opportunities through an instructor at SCC, and that after graduation, he would like to pursue a career in corporate aircraft maintenance. 

Students and instructors in aerospace programs are aware of the labor shortage, and it’s often talked about as something that could lead to more job opportunities for students, French says. 

“They do talk a lot about how a lot of the current workforce started a while ago, and how a lot of them are getting ready to retire, so there’s going to be a bigger gap opening for careers,” he says. 

Air Washington is another organization promoting aerospace education in Washington state. The program is a consortium of 11 community and technical colleges throughout the state, including SCC.  

The program is currently in its third year, says Carol Weigand project, manager of the Air Washington program at SCC. Weigand says the initiative was awarded a no-cost extension to continue its work after the grant has expired. She also says the Washington state Legislature recently passed funding to help promote aerospace programs in the future. 

Air Washington focuses mainly on hiring faculty for training in aerospace careers. It also helps schools develop curriculums and recruit students. 

“Locally, we are training machinists to manufacture aerospace parts, aviation maintenance technicians, and also avionics and electronics students for some of the more technical trades,” Weigand says. 

Marzetta says, however, even with more education programs in place, there still aren’t enough workers to fill all of the aerospace jobs in the area.

“We still have a ways to go, because I think the percentage of kids who are taking part in (the programs) … is still not a big enough percentage of the population to match the demand for things that are coming up,” he says. “But what is happening right now is very positive and in the right direction.” 

One industry trend, says Marzetta, is the use of advanced composite materials, or ACMs. Composites are materials that have a high degree of strength and stiffness while being lightweight. SCC has a composites training laboratory. 

As an example of how composites can be used, Marzetta says that Boeing Co. recently introduced the first plane with an all-composite hull.

Planes made with composites have advantages over those made with traditional materials, Marzetta says. 

“The advantages are obvious, mostly gas mileage,” he says. He says airplanes made with composites also are more structurally sound and cost-effective. 

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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