Cantwell: U.S. at ‘Pivotal Point’ for Aerospace Competitiveness, Must Invest in Job Skills

21,000 WA new aerospace workers needed over next 10 years At field hearing in Seattle, Cantwell and WA employers detail strategies to produce more skilled workers

SEATTLE, WA – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) challenged industry, education and workforce training leaders to think outside of the box to close today’s aerospace skills gap in order to maintain America’s competitiveness in the aerospace industry.

During a U.S. Senate Aviation Subcommittee field hearing Cantwell chaired in Seattle this morning, aviation leaders from across Washington state examined both local and federal efforts to foster the development of a 21st century aviation workforce and meet the needs of a rapidly growing industry. The field hearing, entitled “The Aviation Workforce: Training Needs and Challenges,” was Cantwell’s first in-state hearing as chair of the Aviation subcommittee.

Washington state’s aerospace industry accounts for 84,000 jobs, representing more than one-sixth of all aerospace workers in the nation. But more skilled workers are needed in Washington and nationwide, due to a “perfect storm” of increased demand, impending retirements and new technology. Some 21,000 new workers are needed over the next decade in the state, according to a report by the Washington Council on Aerospace. Nationwide, the broader aerospace industry plans on hiring 32,000 workers this year, according to the 2011 Aviation Week Workforce Study.

“This is a pivotal point for the competitiveness of America’s aerospace industry,” Cantwell said Monday. “Washington needs more than 21,000 new aerospace workers over the next decade to fill new jobs and meet employer demands. And America needs thousands more skilled workers to seize aerospace job opportunities on the horizon. We need to make the right decisions today to create aerospace jobs now – and for our children.”

Demand for American aerospace products is expected to rise over the next decades, with Boeing projecting demand at 33,000 commercial aircraft over the next 20 years. At the same time, many in America’s aerospace workforce are approaching retirement. Jim Bearden of the International Association of Machinists District Lodge 751 said Monday that nearly one-third of the union’s 30,000 members in the state are projected to retire in the next five-to-seven years.

As American aerospace manufacturing faces increased retirements and greater demand, emerging technologies – such as the composites used in the 787 – require additional training.

“If we cannot provide airplanes in the timeframes required by our customers, it is likely they will look to other manufacturers to satisfy their fleet needs,” said Michael Greenwood, Senior Manager for Boeing Commercial Aircraft Manufacturing and Quality. “So, as the business grows, we must also increase our capacity by growing our workforce to create the products our customers demand.”

Cantwell highlighted the aerospace industry cluster’s importance in communities across the state: from large aerospace present in King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties to growing cities in Spokane and Yakima.This increasing demand for skilled and flexible workers also impacts hundreds of small and medium-sized aerospace employers across the state – including many Boeing suppliers.

The recent hiring of 6,000 workers at Boeing creates a domino effect on the industry,” said Randall Julin, General Manager of Absolute Aviation Services in Spokane. “Those workers, in many instances, are hired from other aerospace companies in the area, who must then backfill those positions. … Being able to fill these positions with trained workers is not only important to Washington state, but also in our national interests.”

For continued growth, Cantwell and panelists discussed the need for improved aerospace training, including apprenticeship programs, Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, and industry-academic partnerships.

Several witnesses at today’s hearing discussed emerging partnerships with Air Washington, a consortium of 14 community and technical colleges and several aerospace training organizations across Washington. The consortium was created to address and meet the needs of the state’s growing aerospace workforce in advanced manufacturing/machining, aircraft assembly, aircraft maintenance, composites, and electronics. On October 14th, Senators Cantwell and Patty Murray (D-WA) formally announced a $20 million investment that provides the capacity to train more than 2,600 workers with the skills needed by Washington state aerospace employers.

Also key to readying a 21st aerospace workforce is interesting youth earlier in the education system to pursue careers in aerospace. Cyndi Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Business Training Center with Edmonds Community College, testified today about the need to interest more youth in pursuing careers in aerospace. “Although the aerospace manufacturing industry has many career opportunities and ladders, today’s youth appear to be unaware of and/or disinterested in pursuing aerospace careers,” Schaeffer stated in her written testimony. “There needs to be increased recruitment of middle school, high school, and young adults to the industry.”

Reba Gilman, Chief Executive Officer and Principal of Aviation High School (AHS) based in Des Moines, WA, said in her written testimony that the school wants to formalize its relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to forge more collaboration and help expose and familiarize students with the cutting-edge technology the FAA is looking at integrating.

Gilman also said more aviation-focused schools are needed to help close the aviation job skills gap. “The committee should consider working with industry, federal agencies and Aviation High to help replicate schools like ours in other parts of Washington state and the country,” said Gilman. “AHS was conceived in 2000 in response primarily to the critical need to improve student achievement in math and science to ensure that our graduates were prepared for the rigors of college AND the demands of a high-tech, global workplace… We are only producing 100 students steeped in aviation and aerospace per year and if we are going to fill the pipeline for available jobs, we must have more schools like ours.”

Cantwell has long fought to make Washington state a 21st century hub for the commercial aviation industry. In February 2011, Cantwell played a key role in shepherding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill through the Senate, which invests in 21st century technology for air travel, creating high-tech aviation jobs and improving efficiency for travel and trade. The FAA reauthorization bill would convert the nation’s air traffic control system from the outdated, less efficient ground-based system to a more efficient satellite-based system. The GPS-based system, called NextGen, will allow aircraft to move more precisely into and out of airports, improving air safety and reducing flight delays that cost the nation’s economy billions of dollars each year.

In 2003, the Senate passed Cantwell’s amendment to the ‘Vision 100’ FAA reauthorization bill creating the FAA’s first advanced aviation materials research center. She successfully fought to have the new center based at the University of Washington. The Center for Excellence for Advanced Materials for Transportation Aviation Structures (AMTAS) leads the industry’s research of advanced aviation materials, such as composites and aluminum alloys, for use in civilian transport aircraft. Research conducted by AMTAS students and scientists helped prove to the FAA that use of structural composite materials in aircrafts is safe. Boeing incorporated ATMAS’ findings into many of the new 787s’ systems. 

As part of AMTAS, Cantwell also helped land initial funding to help grow a training program in advanced aviation materials started in the late 90s at Edmonds Community College. Since then, several other training programs at the state level have spun off from these initial programs and are currently helping to produce the skilled aviation workforce of the future.