During Aviation Hearing, Cantwell Says U.S. Must Produce More Skilled Workers to Stay Ahead

Boeing: ‘The problem really starts at the elementary school level’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today during a Senate Aviation Subcommittee hearing on aerospace competitiveness, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said America needs to interest more young people in aviation careers in order to meet the needs of U.S. aviation employers and maintain U.S. leadership in the global industry. Cantwell also stressed the need for more support for aerospace skills training programs to produce a 21st century-skilled aerospace workforce.

Video of today’s hearing available here.

“With the projections for future growth, the aerospace industry represents a great opportunity for job growth in America – but only if we take the right actions now necessary to stay competitive,” said Cantwell, who chaired the hearing. “Today’s hearing is about seizing that jobs opportunity.”

At this year’s Farnborough International Airshow, Boeing announced orders and commitments for 396 airplanes, valued at around $37 billion. However, some 21,000 new aerospace workers are needed in Washington state over the next decade. This need is due to increased demand for air travel by a growing global middle class, planned retirements by ‘baby boomer’ aerospace workers and increased use of technology that requires specialized training.

But not enough American students are studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – knowledge and skills critical to a career in aviation and in high demand by employers. According to the National Science Board, 33 percent of all U.S. STEM doctoral students in U.S. universities are foreign students on temporary visas, and 57 percent of U.S. post-doctoral fellows in STEM fields hold temporary visas.

“We’re graduating about 70,000 engineers a year, but only 44,000 of those [are] eligible for aerospace careers due to security issues,” Cantwell said during today’s hearing. “So how do we get more STEM educated engineers in aerospace? What do we need to do? And are we talking about starting out at the K-12 level? Is that where we need to start? Is that where we need to build the pipeline? Or are there some immediate things we can do at our four-year institutions?”

“Clearly we need more capacity and more research going on at the graduate level and at the bachelor’s degree level,” responded Dr. John Tracy, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Engineering, Operations and Technology, The Boeing Company. “But the problem really starts at the elementary school level, where even in terms of just the public image that scientists and engineers have through the popular media affects young people’s choices. … But there are programs out there and our industry is working as a whole to try and change this. There are programs like First Robotics where we get junior high and high school kids into robotics competitions that have the feel of a high school football game that gets their interest going.”

Dr. Tracy continued: “We’re investing alone $25 million dollars a year in the external community trying to get these young people excited. So I do have hope, but it does require a systems solution where all of us are working as individuals talking to young people next door, from historically underrepresented communities in aerospace to the top-level public policy decisions and programs. It takes all of those working together.”

Dr. Tracy also commented during the hearing that he personally became interested in an aviation and engineering career when he witnessed a NASA demonstration at age 5.

Other critical competition issues raised at the hearing by subcommittee members and industry experts, including Boeing, airlines and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), include the recent expiration of the research and development tax incentive, the need for a timely transition to the satellite-based air traffic control system called NextGen, and the need to revamp the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process for completed aircraft to help prevent production delays.

The FAA certifies the design, manufacture and air-worthiness of a completed aircraft as well as that of many of its component parts. As a result of the 2003 FAA authorization bill, the FAA developed a “sequencing policy” as a means to allocate its limited resources and prioritize which certification projects will be worked on and which will be delayed. As a result, airplane manufacturers and their suppliers sometimes face production delays. 

Commercial passenger traffic in the U.S. alone is projected to increase 90 percent by 2032, growing from 731 million passengers in 2011 to 1.2 billion passengers in 2032. The projected 3 percent annual growth for the United States is less than half of what is projected abroad. Combined with the need to replace aging aircraft, this passenger demand is driving orders for aircraft and components. Boeing’s latest forecast indicates airlines will need 34,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years, valued at $4.5 trillion.

Washington state’s aerospace industry accounts for 92,400 jobs, representing more than one-sixth of all aerospace workers in the nation, according to the Washington Aerospace Partnership. But more skilled workers are needed in Washington and nationwide, due to a “perfect storm” of increased demand, impending retirements and new technology.

As Chair of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, Cantwell has repeatedly called for Congress to increase support for apprenticeship programs, STEM education, industry-academic partnerships, and aerospace skills training programs to produce a 21st century-skilled aerospace workforce.

On October 28th, Cantwell joined Spokane Community College (SCC) to announce a new veterans outreach program to connect veterans with aerospace jobs in Washington state. The program started at SCC will eventually be implemented at 14 community and technical colleges across the state to help connect veterans with aerospace jobs. The program will work to standardize the process for awarding community college credit to veterans for military experience to help get them through aerospace training faster and into aerospace employment sooner. Eastern Washington’s aerospace industry currently supports some 8,000 jobs and is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next several years, according to the SCC’s Inland Northwest Aerospace Technology Center.

On October 24th, Cantwell held a U.S. Aviation Subcommittee field hearing in Seattle on closing the aerospace job skills gap. Witness testimony is available here. Aviation leaders from across the state of Washington testified about strategies to develop a skilled aviation workforce and meet the needs of a rapidly growing industry.

On October 14th, Senators Cantwell and Patty Murray (D-WA) formally announced a $20 million Department of Labor investment that provides the capacity to train more than 2,600 workers with the skills needed by Washington state aerospace employers. The investment is supporting Air Washington, a consortium – led by Spokane Community College – 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. The investment is enabling the expansion of aerospace training programs across the state.

Cantwell has long fought to maintain Washington state’s role as 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 GPS-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 materials research center of excellence. 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.

Cantwell also helped land initial funding to help expand a training program in advanced aviation materials started in the late 1990s 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.