The Obama Administration recently named the Puget Sound Region (Seattle metro) as one of the 12 designated Manufacturing Communities, as part of the second phase of the Investment in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) program launched in September 2013.
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Patrick Pierce and Sarah Lee of the Puget Sound Regional Council, one of the main driving forces behind the proposal and subsequent nomination, talk about a robust aerospace manufacturing sector characterized by innovation and technology within their state, and discuss how statewide (and perhaps nationwide) collaborative efforts are working to take such regional attributes to an entirely new level.
Looking across the state of Washington, it’s clear that manufacturing, and particularly that which is done within the aerospace sector, serves as a significant driving force for the state’s overall economy and employment. In fact, just in the aerospace industry alone, there over 132,000 individuals employed, a figure that stems from the nearly 1,350 aerospace suppliers and OEM’s choosing to set up shop and run their operations in the Evergreen State.
“Many of these companies are located within the Puget Sound Region, and when you combine this massive aerospace presence with the addition of strong maritime, IT, clean technology, life science, and global health sectors in the area as well, you get a compelling manufacturing scene that just continues to facilitate growth and attract more and more companies to come in and do their business here,” says Pierce, who serves as the program manager for economic development within the PSRC.
It’s this kind of regional identity that led many of the state’s economic leaders to get together and collaborate on a proposal that seeks to further strengthen manufacturing’s foundation in the Puget Sound, and ensure that when the older members of its workforce begin to retire, a younger, equally-skilled generation is ready to step in and continue the area’s manufacturing success.
Part of this was done through the PSRC’s launching of a coalition made of up more than 300 government, business, labor, and community organizations dedicated to a mission of improving the long-term economic prosperity for the central Puget Sound Region. “This coalition is quite unique, in that most other states in the U.S. don’t have this type of cooperation on this broad of a scale,” says Lee, who serves as PSRC’s principal economic development manager, and adds, “To be able to bring all these decision makers to a neutral table and discuss how to move the region forward as a whole has been both enlightening and extremely rewarding.”
But the aerospace industry isn’t limited to the Puget Sound I-5 aerospace corridor, which is why PSRC included the growing eastern Washington I-90 aerospace corridor counties, Grant and Spokane, in the IMCP program application. “Many of the aerospace firms across both I-5 and I-90 aerospace corridors are smaller companies averaging around 98 employees-and we looked at these businesses and focused on how we could assist them in facing some of the pressures they feel from the OEMs and overall industry,” says Pierce. Because it’s a mutual relationship, at the heart of it, as many of these companies serve as crucial suppliers to some of the world’s biggest players in aerospace, including Boeing, Airbus, and Bombardier. “These major companies know that even though these suppliers are much smaller than they are, they need their operations to be just as healthy and efficient as their own,” Lee says.
Pierce says that one of the umbrella issues for these smaller aerospace manufacturers is weathering the cyclical nature of the aerospace industry and ensuring that they stay afloat even during tough times. “It’s about finding ways for these companies to leverage the talent and technologies they have around them so that they can be more efficient and productive in their year-round operations,” says Pierce, adding, “ One area of great interest is how we cross-pollinate our clusters, drawing on our advanced manufacturing, IT and R&D prowess to drive further innovation in our region’s economy.”
He says that in response to this need, the state of Washington has already received a $4.3 million federal grant to help the state’s military and defense sector weather the recent reductions in defense spending, and provide added time to develop economic diversification strategies.
Assisting Puget Sound manufacturers in leveraging technology and other factors to become more efficient in their operations is crucial, but perhaps even more important is the region’s ability to facilitate a talented workforce going forward, as the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire off in greater numbers. And in a state where Boeing has chosen to design and manufacture its next generation, brand-new 777X airliners-involving the production of one of the largest composite wings ever there presents a bit more of urgency to ensure such a workforce is ready to take over the reins when needed.
However, the region is already taking an aggressive approach in its workforce efforts, with one of its chief accomplishments thus far coming from the construction of an Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center (AMTEC). The modern facility, which stretches 38,000-square-feet (and is expected to be expanded up to 70,000-square-feet in the coming months), is located in Everett, Wash., and is operated by the Everett Community College to serve more than 200 manufacturing industry employers, including Boeing in Snohomish County.
The facility offers short, stackable certifications and certificates aligned with industry standards that build to a college degree and create a clear pathway towards family wage jobs in not just the aerospace manufacturing sector, but many others as well. “AMTEC replicated a manufacturing facility, where in addition to learning a specific trade, students are exposed to the full manufacturing lifecycle from first conception of a product or idea to computer-aided design, material choice, and the actual production of prototypes and products, with quality management embedded in all of these steps,” Pierce says.
In addition to the facility, the Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash. received a $2.49 million grant from the Department of Labor to establish a Mechatronics Technician degree program. “This grant was awarded due to a great application and our region’s IMCP designation, bringing our expressed needs and goals to a federal audience,” says Lee.
For a region whose manufacturing presence is largely represented by aerospace, one of the most complex and dynamic industries there is, they certainly face a long road ahead in fostering innovation and locking down a workforce that will allow the state to thrive in the coming decades. But the road is appearing to be a smooth one, as the IMCP designation, bolstered by a statewide collaborative effort and newly-injected funds and training centers, has the Puget Sound region, and by extension the state of Washington, soaring full speed ahead.