Boeing to Senate panel: more trained workers, more federal help needed

By:  Steve Wilhelm
Source: Puget Sound Business Journal

Not enough qualified workers, and not enough federal support, are two key factors that could hamper Boeing’s ability to compete against a growing array of international challengers.

That was the central message delivered by John Tracy, chief technology officer The Boeing Co   ., at a hearing Wednesday on global aerospace competitiveness before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, in Washington, D.C.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), also heard testimony from Stan Sorscher, Seattle-based labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), as well as several aerospace organizations.

But Tracy got top billing, and his remarks in a written version reflect a competitive landscape that's being shifted by strong government support of Boeing competitors in Europe, China and elsewhere.

Describing Boeing’s urgent need for more workers, Tracy said the company employs 173,167 workers, but is facing a shortage of highly trained technical workers and engineers. The current crop of Boeing workers averages 48, and many of them are retiring, he said.

“Nothing is more fundamental to sustaining our ability to compete and win in a global economy than a strong pipeline of skilled workers,” he said.

In discussing government support, Tracy said Boeing spent $3.9 billion in research and development last year, but needs the federal government to play more of a collaborative role.

While he didn’t directly allude to other government’s support of their aerospace industries, it’s no secret that many governments consider aerospace a key national investment.

For instance, China’s Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd., also called Comac, is a state-owned company that was started just four years ago. Now it is building a single-aisle jet, the C919, that will directly compete against Boeing’s 737 series in China, and to a smaller degree in world markets.

Tracy said U.S. support of civil aeronautics research has “declined significantly,” and in 2010 the U.S. government only spent 10 percent of the money invested by European governments.

In addition, he said, lack of federal funding for NASA has meant that U.S. facilities such as wind tunnels have declined significantly compared to those available overseas.

While the U.S. historically has had the most advanced such facilities in the world, that no longer is the case, and Boeing has been forced to do some of its testing outside the U.S., “often at much greater cost,” Tracy said.