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Modern airplanes are wonders of engineering. They are highly complex and require the skill of many different disciplines to construct. Building a plane takes a talented, dedicated group of people.

By: Bruce Kendall, CEO and President, Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County

To build a fleet of planes you need a talented workforce. And to keep building fleets of planes year after year, that workforce must grow, generation after generation. Right now, companies like Boeing and their suppliers are manufacturing and selling planes for delivery far into the future. Today’s high school students will be tomorrow’s airplane builders.

For more than a century, Washington State has been a leader in the aerospace industry. That success has been achieved because the state has built an education infrastructure to keep the workforce prepared and employed.

But as Baby Boomers are starting to retire in record numbers, Washington State is facing a workforce challenge. According to the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing, in 2013-2014, nearly 95,000 aerospace and manufacturing jobs were posted statewide. Pierce County and the city of Tacoma, just 30 minutes from Seattle, have taken a proactive approach to ensuring this vibrant industry continues to thrive through commitments to collaboration and workforce development.

We work side-by-side with manufacturers. We use their manuals as textbooks, use the same machines and tools that are actually used on the shop floor, and help design the classrooms and curriculum to replicate a real workspace.

The skills training being done in Pierce County is the result of years of collaboration to not only get people working, but to ensure these workers produce what the employers really need. Dozens of business leaders, employers, teachers and academic professionals have sat down over the years to truly listen to both the employers who are doing the hiring, and to the veteran employees who know first-hand what it takes to be successful in the aviation industry.

Pierce County committed to creating a workforce for jobs at all levels in aerospace by offering a range of education, from 16-week certificate programs to 4-year and masters degrees.

Starting in high school, students learn that this is a high demand industry, and that aviation job placement training opportunities are available for students in their junior and senior year. We support the custom of encouraging kids to be firefighters and doctors, and we think it’s just as important to inspire our students to perpetuate the tradition of aviation excellence in our region.

For example, the 777X, 737 MAX, and other new plane components being manufactured at Boeing’s facility in Fredrickson, Wash., require composite technology training. Even beyond aviation, composites are being used locally in product manufacturing, the automotive industry, boat building, and more. This is a growing industry, and we plan to capitalize on it. Therefore, we have numerous schools offering training and courses, including those focused on composites.

Clover Park Technical College was the first college in the state to provide composites training. Now, their curriculum, created alongside WorkForce Central and business owners, is the basis of the majority of programs offered through the state and beyond. The Advanced Composite Manufacturing certification is a two-quarter program designed to prepare students to fabricate, assemble, and repair composite materials now commonly used on aircraft. Grants from the Department of Labor have infused more than $1.5 million into these programs’ equipment and facilities to ensure they exceed current industry standards and mirror industry practices. Their work and long-standing relationships with Boeing and other local companies such as Toray Composites (America), Inc., Saint Gobain Performance Plastics, and Composite Solutions has guided their program from development to implementation to job placement for their students. Additionally, Clover Park Tech recently started offering a Bachelor of Applied Science in Operations Management degree.

Bates Technical College offers training and certifications in areas such as welding and composites. Bates is a pre-employment testing facility in welding for Boeing, and it works with other local companies such as JWD Machine, Orion Industries, and Air Spares, Inc. Through Bates, AirSpares currently employs a woman welder from a local high school. There are also nine Washington state-approved apprenticeship-training programs for high schools affiliated with Bates Technical College, including the aerospace industry. Apprentices work in the field earning wages at a percentage of the journey-level rate while also attending classes on a part-time basis.

The Pierce County Skills Center has a specific focus on composites training with a goal of replicating the needs of industry in the classroom so that high school students are able to make a seamless and successful transition to the workplace and/or post-secondary education. Once completed, they can demonstrate and understand the importance of lean manufacturing, the 6’s, traceability and accountability, while mastering a technical skill that prepares them for high skill and high demand jobs. The center offers training courses that include: aerospace composite technicians, metal fabrication/machining, welding, and in building trades. The skills center works in conjunction with local community colleges, and includes high school students from seven school districts in Pierce County.

The Aerospace Joint Apprentice Committee (AJAC) offers several pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs for advanced manufacturing and aerospace – such as machinist, aircraft mechanic, precision metal fabrication, tool and die maker, and industrial maintenance.

Additionally, both of the areas’ community colleges have programs dedicated to aerospace and manufacturing industries. Tacoma Community College had a lead role in the development of the nationally recognized Learning Engineering Design Skills program funded by the National Science Foundation and The Boeing Company. And Pierce College offers engineering and aviation science courses.

Students from Pierce County’s educational programs have landed at local companies including AIM Aerospace, The Boeing Company, General Plastics, Toray Composites (America), Inc., and more.

Our initiatives in workforce training are working. We need to ensure funding continues to meet the demand. As the aerospace and composites industry continues to grow, we want to make sure our region grows with it.

For more information, visit the Tacoma & Pierce County’s Aerospace website and The Center of Excellence for Aerospace & Advanced Manufacturing website.

About the Author:

Bruce Kendall is the President & CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County (EDB); a position he has held since 1999.  The EDB is a private, non-profit corporation focused on the retention and recruitment of primary businesses in Tacoma and Pierce County, Washington. Mr. Kendall received his undergraduate degree from Whitman College and earned a Masters degree in Business Administration from the University of Washington.

Over the past 10 years the EDB has worked with companies that have invested more than one billion dollars in Pierce County and created more than 14,000 jobs.

Bruce serves on the following boards: Institute of Technology at University of Washington Tacoma (Chair), Central Puget Sound Economic Development District and the Tacoma-Pierce County Workforce Development Council.

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