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Students at Mountlake Terrace High School
Aaron Quach and Jonathan Thiem, students at Mountlake Terrace High School, work on a Boeing-backed class project that involves designing an efficient airplane wing. (Boeing Photo / Katie Lomax)

The state of the aerospace industry in Washington state is still great, but industry leaders say the educational system will have to be beefed up if it’s going to stay that way for the next generation.

That cautionary message emerged from today’s installment of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Congress’ Executive Speaker Series, focusing on the aerospace industry.

In 2015, the aerospace industry employed 253,000 workers in Washington state and accounted for $95 billion in economic impact, said Kelly Maloney, president and CEO of the Aerospace Futures Alliance.

More than a quarter of those workers work for the Boeing Co., primarily in the commercial airplane division. And despite worries about Puget Sound job reductions, Washington state employees account for nearly half of the company’s global workforce, said Bill McSherry, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ vice president for government operations.

Thousands more supply Boeing with components for all those airplanes. “Without Boeing, my company wouldn’t be here,” said Rosemary Brester, president and CEO of Hobart Machined Products, a supplier that has about 10 employees in Hobart, Wash.

Brester said her company has three teenage interns working alongside employees.

“I want to be able to develop our manufacturing skill sets for the next generation of workers in our state,” she said.

But Joseph Sprague, senior vice president of external relations for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, said he was concerned about how prepared the next generation will be to take the baton from veterans with decades of experience.

“Our K-12 system in this state is failing our kids right now,” Sprague said. High-school graduation rates are “abysmal,” and many of those graduates aren’t ready to take on aerospace jobs, he said.

“We need to get more qualified people in the employment pipeline,” Sprague said.

He said having enough pilots to serve what’s expected to be a growing aviation market is of particular concern, in part because the pool of experienced military pilots is shrinking. There could also be shortages of maintenance technicians in the years ahead.

“This is, in my opinion, our biggest opportunity and our biggest problem over the next five to 10 years,” Boeing’s McSherry said. “If we do it right, it’s another generation of really good family-wage jobs. And if we do it wrong, you could see employers moving blue-collar, family-wage jobs out of the region while folks are unemployed because we don’t solve this.”

To address the issue, Boeing and other employers have been working with state education officials on a Core Plus curriculum that emphasizes the skills students will need for technical jobs.

Alaska Airlines presents an annual Aviation Day at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in cooperation with Boeing and the Port of Seattle, to whet the interest of students who may “have no clue what aerospace or aviation jobs look like,” Sprague said.

And post-secondary schools such as Renton Technical College to Central Washington University offer programs to prepare the next generation for jobs ranging from piloting airplanes to building and fixing them. There may be room for still more educational programs to be set up, although Sprague acknowledged that “it’s not for the faint of heart to open a flight school.”

There’s one caveat: Good-paying jobs have to lie at the end of the road. Ashley Messmer, for example, graduated from CWU and received her commercial pilot license in 2012 – but she said working as an entry-level pilot for a regional airline wouldn’t pay her a livable wage.

“We all have that passion. We love flying. It’s what we want to do with our lives,” Messmer told the panelists. “But .. the pipeline is completely backed up. It’s hard: I can’t pursue that passion right now because I’m paying my student loan.”

Instead, she’s working for Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Sprague, a former commercial pilot, said he could relate to Messmer’s situation – but he also saw signs of hope ahead. Concerns about having enough pilots are starting to sink in even among regional airlines, to such an extent that employers are paying signing bonuses to newly hired pilots.

“The signing bonus is more than I made in my first year as a pilot,” Sprague said.

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