Spokane Journal of Business

Washington must work to keep edge in aerospace

Innovation, skilled workers are among high priorities

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As more people take to the skies for business and pleasure, airlines around the globe will purchase nearly 30,000 jets during the next 20 years to accommodate world travel and to replace aging and less fuel-efficient aircraft. In order to meet this increased demand and to reduce a record backlog of existing orders, the world’s leading aircraft suppliers are announcing unprecedented production rates and are looking outside existing supply chains in order to meet customer delivery dates.   

The move is creating a global supply chain with fierce competition. Washington aerospace suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors, including 60 located here in Spokane, temporarily have a competitive edge because of their skilled workforce and close proximity to Boeing, the world’s leading supplier of commercial aircraft. However, with Boeing and Airbus looking for relief in southern U.S. states and countries around the globe, the Northwest’s competitive edge could slip away if we become complacent.

Staying globally competitive in a changing world where regulation and labor costs fluctuate will require a concerted effort in five key areas: innovation, workforce, education, public policy, and exports. On the topic of innovation, that means continuing to provide cutting-edge technology and, for workforce, it means continuing to invest in skills training and apprenticeships. In the area of education, it means providing the resources to inspire STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) instruction and aerospace careers and, in public policy, it means driving prosperity by creating legislation supporting a highly competitive aerospace environment. For exports, it involves supporting the Export Import Bank. 



For nearly 100 years, Washington state has led the nation and the world in aerospace innovation and manufacturing. From its humble beginning in 1916 with William Boeing’s inaugural flight of Model 1, to the space-age contributions of Aerojet’s retro rockets that enabled Curiosity to gently land on the surface of Mars, aerospace innovation has become the multibillion dollar driver of the state’s economy.  

To compete with states offering lower labor rates and less regulation, the Washington Aerospace Cluster must continue to lead aerospace innovation. Continued collaboration among private businesses, universities and state agencies will attract research and development for new technologies. Innovative clusters with high concentrations of businesses with specialized skills will be instrumental in meeting global demand and can drive competiveness. By attracting financiers for aerospace research and development, whether in composites, biofuels, or other state-of-the-art developments, the Northwest will continue to foster a culture and reputation for collaborative innovation.



Although Boeing is the state’s largest employer with more than 82,000 employees—more in-state workers than Microsoft, the University of Washington, and Amazon combined—Washington’s aerospace industry is far more than Boeing. It consists of more than 1,350 aerospace companies that employ more than 132,500 Washingtonians and that produce more than 1,300 aircraft a year, including 600 commercial and military jets and 700 unmanned aircraft systems. These companies produce a wide range of components, parts, and products for an increasingly global market that includes companies such as France’s Airbus, Brazil’s Embraer, Canada’s Bom-bardier, and China’s COMAC.  

Washington’s experienced and well-trained workforce of ma-chinists, computer scientists, and engineers has put the Washington Aerospace Cluster ahead of the competition for decades. It also has ensured that our region maintains healthy employment statistics, a strong standard of living, and a strong quality of life.  

Washington’s talent enables Boeing to produce 42 737 jets per month, dwarfing the competition in areas with less-experienced workers. The sheer number of planes it produces will allow the Washington Aerospace Cluster to maintain its competitive edge. However, it’s an advantage that soon could disappear. With a large portion of its workforce eligible to retire within the next seven years, aerospace manufacturers are looking for skilled workers wherever they can find them. Globalization has created manufacturing competitors around the globe who are vying to fill the void, as are domestic rivals from the South. 

While workers in these areas offer cheap labor, Washington’s labor force offers a deep understanding of aerospace needs and a rich tradition of experience in design, production, and assembly. 

To continue our aerospace legacy, we need to inspire our youth to continue in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.  

Organizations such as Spokane Community College, the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing, and Air Washington are stepping up to the challenge and are working together to meet these needs.  


Public policy

Legislators and aerospace leaders at the state and federal levels are shaping global competitiveness by creating legislation that supports a more competitive aerospace environment.For example, in May, the White House designated the Puget Sound region, including Spokane, one of 12 manufacturing communities.  Led by the Puget Sound Regional Council, the region is working with local employers to identify training needs and to develop new manufacturing capabilities to strengthen its aerospace supply chain.  This designation will bring federal agencies together with local officials and private entities to develop strategies that strengthen our competitive edge.  

This is good news for the Washington Aerospace Cluster. However, we must not lose focus in maintaining competitive advantage. 


Export-Import Bank

By reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, Congress can help keep the Washington Aerospace Cluster globally competitive. 

Since 1935, the Export-Import Bank has provided loans, loan guarantees, and credit insurance to foreign companies purchasing American goods.  Washington state is the largest single beneficiary of export-import financing, largely because 80 percent of Boeing aircraft are sold outside the U.S.

Since many foreign countries subsidize their major industries, reauthorization is an important tool to be able to compete successfully against foreign competitors that have access to even larger export credit assistance programs administered by their own governments.  The Export-Import Bank gives us a competitive advantage in an intensely competitive aircraft market at no cost to the American taxpayer.

Home to 60 aerospace manu-facturers, suppliers, and distributors that are capable of serving diverse aerospace needs, Spokane is a strong contributor to the Washington Aerospace Cluster.  Its quality of life, congestion-free roads, affordable shovel-ready land with access to an international airport, rail, and Interstate 90 make it an attractive place for aerospace companies looking to expand or relocate.  In addition, its close proximity to a steady pool of talent from Fairchild Air Force Base enhances its attraction.


Melanie Jordan is executive director of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance and can be reached at (425) 885-0290. Mike Marzetta is chairman of the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium and can be reached at (509) 924-3731. 

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