State must prepare aerospace workers of the future

WASHINGTON state is heavily dependent on its aerospace and manufacturing industries. Last year, the state exported more than $23.3 billion in aerospace products — 30 percent of all U.S. aerospace exports.

Industry and education officials are beginning to coalesce around the problem of ensuring there are enough people with the right skills to fill the jobs and hold onto our competitive edge in aerospace manufacturing.

One in six aerospace jobs are here in Washington state. The state needs 21,000 new aerospace workers during the next decade. Getting companies and educational communities engaged is an effort led by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. The Democrat is holding legislative field hearings and round-table discussions around the state to home in on specific challenges and potential solutions.

A special target of employment efforts is veterans. One in four veterans in their early 20s is unemployed. That is a waste of youth and potential.

This is not about out-innovating the world, but matching the right skills with future jobs. Many of the best jobs of the future will require skills in science, technology, engineering and math education.

Time is running short. More than 50 percent of the workforce in aerospace and manufacturing are nearing retirement, adding real urgency on efforts to prepare the next generation.

We are talking about more than machinists, but also aircraft mechanics, aircraft interior technicians and composite technicians. Technology has advanced the work they do, but the people who manage the machines must still bring critical skills steeped in science, math, engineering and technology. The crafts held by aerospace-manufacturing workers involve more than pushing buttons, but knowing how to troubleshoot when machines invariably fail.

Workforce training and STEM education to keep the aerospace pipeline strong should extend beyond Western Washington where the Boeing plants are located. GE Aviation's Yakima plant must be able to rely on a strong local educational system and students skilled in physics and engineering.

Cantwell rightly challenges the aerospace industry and education and workforce-training institutions to start preparing for the future.