Machinists promote training for aerospace jobs

LYNNWOOD — There’s a story that’s told at Boeing, about a long-time Machinist who spent decades of his career working in Renton building landing gear for 737s.

He finally retired, after long years of service. And shortly thereafter, inspectors on the 737 line started finding problems with the landing gear. Time went by, the problems kept cropping up – to the point that it was starting to affect delivery schedules – when someone got the idea to bring the recently retired Machinist back to see if he could figure out the problem.

Turns out that for years, he’d been grinding shims by hand to ensure that the landing gear fit together right, said Laura Hopkins, the executive director of AJAC, the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee. But nobody had ever asked him about it, so he’d never mentioned it – so after he left, nobody knew.

“That’s the perfect example of what we’re trying to stop before it happens,” Hopkins told members of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance, who held their annual conference in Lynnwood in February.

Hopkins and Machinists Union District Lodge 751 Legislative Director Larry Brown were part of a panel discussion at the conference focused on workforce development.

Washington state is home to the “deepest and richest talent pool of any aerospace cluster in the world,” Brown said. “It’s Washington’s No. 1 competitive advantage.”

District 751 is working with Hopkins’ AJAC program to make the pool that much deeper.

AJAC is a Washington state-funded program that helps aerospace companies hire apprentices.

The goal is to provide real-world, shop-floor training for newly hired aerospace workers, along with after-hours classroom instruction. AJAC helps the companies set up their apprenticeship programs, train the trainers who will work with the new hires, and also provides some cash to help off-set apprentices’ tuition as they study at community colleges.

So far, 60 Washington state companies have signed up to take part, Hopkins said, and by summer, AJAC will have established training programs in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane counties.

“We’re growing rapidly,” she said.

The program needs to move quickly, panelists at the conference said. As the Baby Boomer generation starts to retire, there’s only a five to 10-year window left to make sure they pass on their skills.

That’s led to “dramatic concerns,” Hopkins said, “about the shortage of aerospace workers and the need to train the next generation.”

In addition, Boeing has increased its hiring in the past year, Brown noted. Typically, when that happens, the company poaches workers from smaller aerospace suppliers.

“That is a problem if we don’t replenish that supplier workforce,” Brown said.

Job skill development is a key component of District 751’s vision for the future of Washington’s aerospace cluster, Brown said. To that end, the union is working closely with AJAC to ensure the training it offers stays relevant and focused. The union is also working with the Washington Legislature on a bill that would provide tax breaks for companies that hire apprentices through AJAC or similar programs.

“Our commitment to aerospace in the state of Washington is to all aerospace companies,” Brown said. “We know that in the long run, if it’s good for the aerospace industry, it’s good for our union and its members.”

Plus, it is “a lot easier to maintain and grow an aerospace cluster than to start one from scratch,” he added. “Just ask South Carolina.”

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at the Boeing Co., Seattle-based Machinists District Lodge 751 now represents more than 26,000 working men and women at 44 employers across Washington, Oregon and California. In 2010, it negotiated contracts with 22 of those employers without a single workday lost to strikes.

Become a fan of IAM 751 on Facebook.

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