US Senate Hearings Focus On Finding More Aerospace Workers

By:  Deborah Wang

Unemployment may still be high, but there is one industry that is having a difficult time finding enough workers: the aerospace industry. Boeing has hired more than 5,000 new employees this year, and the state is expected to add more than 20,000 new aerospace jobs over the next decade. But where will all those workers come from? That was the subject of a US Senate hearing yesterday in Seattle. KUOW's Deborah Wang reports.


The problem is what US Senator Maria Cantwell calls the "perfect storm:" The aerospace industry is booming. Boeing has orders for new airplanes like the 787 and the Air Force Tanker that will keep it busy for years.

At the same time, its workforce is aging. One–third of the state's machinists are expected to retire in the next five to seven years, and young people are not entering the workforce in high enough numbers to replace them.

That presents very serious risks for the future of the industry, according to Senator Cantwell.

Cantwell: "If we don't meet this skills gap, the competition with China, with Europe, with Brazil, with Canada; those countries and their industries are going to beat us at the manufacturing jobs of the future if we don't invest in skilling our workforce of today."

Cantwell is now chair of the Senate's Aviation Subcommittee. Yesterday, she held a hearing on the future of aerospace jobs at Seattle's Museum of Flight.

The witnesses were company officials, union representatives and educators. They presented a laundry list of reasons for the so–called skills gap: substandard science and math education in the schools, not enough capacity for engineering students at the universities, not enough slots for apprentices in the state.

But the bigger concerns seemed to center around how the industry is perceived. Why is it that young people aren't gravitating to aerospace the way their parents or grandparents did?

James Hermanson is the chair of the University of Washington's department of aeronautics. He says many in his generation were inspired by the Apollo program.

Hermanson: "There was a clear excitement there as a nation, you know, that we rallied around that and the entire country could focus on aerospace as a wonderful exciting field. We may have lost that a little bit, you know, in that we are not going to the moon, you know, the space shuttle has been retired, we seem to be on a little bit of a plateau. So I think the challenge is to energize the generation now to recognize that aviation is still exciting."

Jim Bearden is with the Machinists Union. He says many in his generation found their way into machinist jobs through wood shops and metal shops at school. These days, school shops are mostly disappearing, so kids like him who enjoy working with their hands don't have the same options.

Bearden: "Our schools have promoted the idea that everybody needs to go to college, get a four–year degree and become a software engineer or banker. Most of our local schools don't offer classes in shop anymore. If our young people aren't exposed to careers in the trades at an early age, they will never have the chance to consider whether a manufacturing job could be their life's work. That's a shame."

It's not all gloom and doom, though. There's bustling Aviation High School, which will soon have a new $34 million home at the Museum of Flight. There's also a training consortium called Air Washington. This month, Senator Cantwell announced a $20 million federal grant to the consortium to train 2,600 new aerospace workers in the state.