How Washington State Aerospace Companies Are Attracting New Talent

As home to the highest concentration of aerospace employment in the country, Washington state has an vested interest in meeting growing workforce demand.

As home to more than 1,400 aerospace-related businesses, Washington state boasts America’s highest relative concentration of aerospace employment in the country. The industry generated nearly $70 billion in economic activity throughout the state in 2015, much of it focused within the natural ecosystem that has formed around Boeing since its establishment as the state’s first aerospace company more than a century ago. With so much invested in the industry, Washington has considerable motivation to keep new workers coming through the pipeline in the face of the forecast decline in net employment.

John Thornquist, director of the Office of Aerospace for the Washington State Department of Commerce, serves as the point of contact about policy and legislative issues for aerospace companies. Thornquist says he approaches this task with the question: “What can we do as a state to make it better for you to thrive as an industry?”

In addition to offering aviation-specific tax incentives, Thornquist points to a strong community and technical college system that contributes to students entering the industry. According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, all 34 of the state’s community and technical colleges offer aerospace, aerospace-related or advanced manufacturing programs.

Working with the many area schools, Washington state has seen benefits from investing in efforts to recruit and maintain a skilled workforce. According to the 2016 Annual Aerospace Report by the Washington Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, the state’s return on investment in aerospace-training programs was $15 for every dollar invested. One such investment is the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC).

Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee

Raquel Taijito, one of AJAC’s youth apprentices, working with a mentor at Tool Gauge.

Created in 2008 by an appropriation of the state legislature, AJAC was tasked with creating and implementing modern apprenticeship programs throughout the state. AJAC serves around 400 apprentices per year, with the programs enabling apprentices to work full-time at one of AJAC’s 230 partnering companies while attending class for one night a week. Although AJAC initially focused on adult apprenticeships, the committee recently implemented its first youth apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs targeted at the K-12 level.

According to Lynn Strickland, AJAC’s executive director, the youth programs not only help boost interest in the industry—they broaden demographics as well. “Our pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs provide the opportunity to infuse diversity into the pipeline in the industry,” says Strickland. “The numbers in regard to diversity in our pre-apprenticeship have been really good.”

One tool AJAC uses to engage youth is the Mobile Training Unit (MTU)—a 53-ft. classroom on wheels that can be deployed to training programs across the state. When the MTU is not being used to supplement training classes or just-in-time training for employees of AJAC’s partnering companies, it is rolled out to youth career fairs. Loaded up with equipment such as computerized training stations and a 3D printer, the MTU provides a hands-on opportunity to expose students to aerospace and advanced manufacturing careers.

“These kids are some of the most innovative and curious—questioning the way we do things and whether there might be a better way to do them,” says Strickland. “The youth have really been an inspiration, not just for us as an organization but also for employers. We see a lot of employers getting really engaged and wanting to be able to train and work with the youth and looking at them as their next generation of workforce.”


Boeing employees at a recent outreach event for veterans.

On the employer side, Aviation Technical Services (ATS) is focusing on K-12 students as an important part of building an ongoing workforce pipeline. “One of the things we have set as a goal for ourselves this year is to really start building a better presence and relationship with the middle schools and high schools,” says Amy Henrichsen, vice president for people. “I think one of the challenges is that people often aren’t even considering this as a career.”

ATS has worked with organizations such as AJAC and the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) to ensure that the curriculum students are learning remains up to speed with evolving technology. “There’s a big initiative going on to make sure that what the local schools and colleges are training is still relevant,” says Henrichsen. “So much of the technology and things that are needed in terms of the skillset to work on these newer aircraft have changed.”

Another way ATS taps potential talent is through partnerships with military organizations. Henrichsen says that in addition to visiting military bases in the Puget Sound area to plant seeds about what types of career options are available at ATS, the MRO also partners with organizations such as Camo2Commerce and Work of Honor to reach out to service members transitioning out of military careers. “We find that a lot of folks want to know, instead of just that first job, what does the career path look like? What else can they do once they get on board?” says Henrichsen.

According to Gina Breukelman, senior manager of Boeing Global Engagement, one of the biggest challenges with bringing transitioning service members and veterans into the aerospace industry is showing individuals how to translate military skills into industry skills. “I think the largest gap has been that a service resume and an industry resume often look really different. How do we support the bridging of those two so they get reviewed appropriately and our hiring managers can understand what that resume is saying?”

Breukelman says that in addition to a military skills translator tool on Boeing’s website, which allows service members to input their military career information and find out which jobs at Boeing would be equivalent to their skills and qualifications, the company engages with veterans through various career transition workshops. At a recent application event Boeing held in partnership with the United Service Organization (USO) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) AFB, volunteers went through the Boeing application process with between 50 to 60 transitioning service members and provided resume coaching and mock interviews.

“We know that veterans and transitioning service members have unique skills that they can bring to our company, so we do have a strong emphasis on supporting veterans to transition into Boeing as well as our more charitable activities where we’re helping them to transition more broadly into the workforce,” says Breukelman.

These charitable activities include Boeing’s recent announcement of more than $600,000 in grants for 2018 to veterans and transitioning military programs within Washington state, such as the USO’s Pathfinder and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program at JBLM. On a global level, Boeing hired more than 7,800 veterans in 2011-16, and approximately 15% of the company’s workforce in Washington state identify themselves as veterans.

In addition to all of its workforce efforts with veterans, Boeing has many initiatives and strategies in place to reach out to high school and community college students. One of the most recent focuses on developing Boeing’s entry-level manufacturing workforce. The company has invested in developing a two-year career technical education curriculum on advanced manufacturing, which is available to all the schools in Washington state. Breukelman says part of the strategy is helping students across the state develop skills through experiential learning to make them ready for entry-level jobs in Boeing’s manufacturing workforce. “As a business, we have a really large stake in working on how we fill our future workforce,” says Breukelman.

This is no exaggeration considering Boeing’s role as anchor of the state’s aerospace ecosystem. As Thornquist points out, making sure Boeing’s workforce is healthy ultimately benefits the many other companies in the area working in collaboration with the OEM. Thornquist says that on a statewide level, Boeing provides the lion’s share of aerospace employment in the state and that to attract and retain aerospace talent, the Washington State Department of Commerce wants to make sure that Boeing is strong and thriving. Near-term goals for the department include ensuring a smooth rollout and ramp-up of the 737 MAX and 777X programs. According to Thornquist, the state plans to capitalize on the 777X being built in Washington by helping local companies expand, using it as a driver in attracting new companies to the state. 

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