Last November, as part of a deal to persuade Boeing to build its 777X airplane in Washington, the state Senate approved a bill to create 1,000 positions for students in aerospace programs at community and technical colleges.
Bellingham Technical College received $860,000, enough for 77 new aerospace students. They got the grant last May after submitting a proposal to add two new programs, Bellingham Technical College President Patricia McKeown said.
“This is a major change of emphasis for the college,” McKeown said. “It’s more than just one little program.”
The school created programs in precision machining with room for 27 students. A separate track called engineering pathways will allow 50 students to get trained in three main areas — mechanical engineering, manufacturing technology, and composites manufacturing.
McKeown said the programs are “high-demand, high-cost programs” with expensive equipment and small classes. One piece of machining equipment can cost $400,000, she said.
To support the new programs, the college hired two new full-time faculty, several part-time faculty, and expanded advising, recruiting, and support services at the college.
The programs will debut this fall. School administrators and faculty began working before they received the grant to have the programs ready in time. They knew they could get some grant money, and administrators were already focused on expanding the school’s aerospace and manufacturing curriculum, McKeown said.
“We actually had the precision machining faculty position posted before we got the money,” she said. “We were confident that we would get some resources and we knew we had this really short timeline. We were ready to go and we had these people hired in early July.”
Will students find jobs?
Boeing currently makes 42 737s, one of its primary planes, every month at its assembly plant in Renton. By 2017, Boeing plans to build 47 737s a month, the highest rate ever, according to an October 2013 press release.
But Boeing’s total number of employees isn’t expected to change, and on Aug. 25, the company announced 70 layoffs.
Boeing spokesperson Peter Pedraza said the company is thinking about potential workforce shortages and preparing for them through its internship program, and investments into programs that inspire students to consider a technical career.
He said the company doesn’t expect to have problems with an aging workforce retiring in great numbers. The company’s retirement rate among employees who are qualified to retire is 2.2 percent, he said.
“There’s no doubt that Baby Boomers are getting ready to retire, but we also have younger people coming in,” Pedraza said. “Characterizing it as this mass exodus wouldn’t be completely accurate.”
Several Bellingham companies manufacture parts for Boeing. Zodiac Aerospace laid off more than 50 workers from its Bellingham manufacturing facility in January, according to a Bellingham Herald article. At that time, Zodiac general manager Derek Neumann said the layoffs were “a short-term hiccup,” and that the company’s long-term outlook is strong.
According to the state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board’s annual aerospace manufacturing skills report, 81 percent of surveyed firms reported hiring new employees in the last 12 months.
Demand for a few specific occupations including composites manufacturers, manufacturing engineers, and several other positions, is expected to grow due to workers retiring, the survey found.
McKeown said that even if students in the college’s new programs don’t find jobs in aerospace, manufacturing programs will train students for a variety of different work.
“These programs lead into a lot of other fields,” she said. “The state has made a huge investment to keep Boeing here. Who knows what’s going to happen in 10 years, but I think Boeing is strong.”