Spokane Journal of Business

INWAC keeps sights set on top-tier manufacturers

COVID-19 outbreak tempers expectations

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-Kevin BlockerInland Northwest Aerospace Consortium chairman Mark Norton says the group will continue to collaborate with others to attract manufacturers.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium remains undeterred in its work to try to lure a major aerospace manufacturer to the West Plains, INWAC chairman Mark Norton says.

“That’s kind of our ultimate goal,” he says. “To bring a major, tier-one or a tier-two type company into Spokane, which can hopefully become the thing that opens the gates to get others to start considering our area.”

Major manufacturers with substantial work orders and annual revenue, such as Airbus SE and Boeing Co., are classified as tier one. Some Inland Northwest manufacturers, such as AccraFab Inc., Altek Inc., and Multifab Inc., are among the Spokane area’s tier-two manufacturers.

Examples of tier-three companies include Spokane Novation Inc., which does precious metal plating, and Eclipse Printing Inc., which manufactures nameplates, labels, and decals for aircraft interiors. Tier-two and tier-three companies supply the tier-one manufacturers with their made parts.

Even though air travel is down 95% since the pandemic’s eruption, the recruitment of outside companies to relocate here will continue through the remainder of 2020 and into next year, Norton says.

INWAC has been collaborating with Spokane International Airport and the S3R3 public development authority in recruitment efforts.

“They have a site already kind of laid out there. They recently got a rail grant ... the whole idea being that we’ll have a site ready to go with all the infrastructure in place,” he says.

However, all those involved in that effort aren’t holding their breath for better days ahead, he says.

“We know that there will be significant consolidations; you’re going to see some companies go under,” Norton says. “Most people are positing that the recovery time here is 24 to 36 months to get back to pre-COVID levels.”

Downsizing workforces and shifting manufacturing focus from aerospace to other sectors are quickly becoming industry norms, Norton says.

That said, Staci Nelson, INWAC’s executive director, says U.S. Department of Defense orders remain strong, which could help offset order decreases from the commercial sector somewhat.

“Companies that are, or that can, get engaged in that space, may experience opportunity,” she says.

Nelson also points to a consortium member in Montana that is heavily involved in privately developed space exploration.

“We still expect to see growth in alternative mobility options,” Nelson says.

Says Norton about INWAC, “First and foremost, we’re here to help with business development around the region for the aerospace industry.”

The 14-year-old consortium was created by the former Spokane Area Economic Development Council, which is now part of Greater Spokane Incorporated. INWAC then was rolled under the Greater Spokane Incorporated umbrella in 2013 and became an independent nonprofit business association. 

As such, INWAC’s earnings are reinvested within the organization and can’t benefit individual members directly.

Norton says INWAC’s core membership consists of roughly two dozen companies, and they employ the majority of the region’s 6,500 aerospace workers.

Membership cost is $1,500 a year for companies with more than 50 employees and $1,000 for companies with fewer workers, Nelson says.

The organization also assists in developing and promoting collaboration between aerospace manufacturers and service providers, ranging geographically from Ellensburg, Washington, to Bozeman, Montana.

Through the years, the consortium has partnered with Idaho Aerospace Alliance, Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, Spokane International Airport, Spokane County, the Port of Moses Lake, North Idaho College, and Spokane Community College, Norton says.

“We help to serve in a sort of consultancy role,” he says. “Our expertise is on the manufacturing and supply-chain side.”

The consortium’s annual conference originally was scheduled to be held in April but tentatively has been rescheduled for Nov. 2-3 at the Davenport Grand Hotel.

The consortium also is working in tandem with its partners as they continue to try to draw younger workers to aerospace-related manufacturing fields.

“There is a real aging out of the baby boomers, particularly in the skilled trades,” he says. “For whatever reason, the millennials and subsequent generations haven’t gravitated toward the skilled trades.”

Prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the U.S. had a reported 1.5 million skilled manufacturing jobs, including machinists and welders, that needed to be filled, Norton says. He hopes aerospace manufacturers will begin recruiting dislocated workers to their ranks quickly.

Norton, a Spokane native, serves as a consultant to Charles Edwards Management Consulting, a Gilbert, Arizona-based firm that helps aerospace companies worldwide understand their markets and perform more efficiently, he says.

“We’re four people with contractors who help us with research,” Norton says. “Our principal lives in Arizona, we do have an office down there, and I’m able to work from home in Spokane.”

Norton previously has worked as an account executive at Multifab Inc., in Spokane Valley; Tekra, a division of EIS Inc., in New Berlin, Wisconsin; and most recently as vice president of Eclipse Screen Printing Inc., in Spokane Valley. Eclipse performs digital printing for the aerospace, electronics, industrial, and medical industries.

“I’ve spent pretty much my whole career in manufacturing in both aerospace and medical,” he says.

Kevin Blocker
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