Washington’s aerospace companies have changed the way the world lives, works and plays, while firmly establishing the state as a global center for innovation, entrepreneurship and employment within the industry.
From 1916, the year industry leader Boeing incorporated with just 21 employees to today, when the company completes final assembly of the world’s most advanced jetliner, the 787, in Seattle, aerospace has become a major economic powerhouse. And it’s just getting started.
“Since Bill Boeing began his company here, naturally the industry grew up in the Northwest. As technology has developed, it stands to reason that the next great ideas are going to come from within the industry. Washington is where the expertise and tools already exist to create the next innovative technologies,” says Linda Lanham, president and executive director of Aerospace Futures Alliance, which promotes and advocates for the industry.
Boeing and Beyond
Today, more than 800 aerospace companies employ more than 123,000 workers, including 6,550 aerospace engineers. Boeing is a household name, but the industry’s scope extends far beyond aircraft assembly and includes leading-edge research and development in advanced materials, alternative fuels, next-generation air traffic management, space and avionics. Global aerospace leaders Crane, Esterline Technologies Corp., Fokker Elmo, Goodrich Aerostructures, GE/Smith, Leibherr Aerospace and Rolls Royce have operations in Washington.
“In large part due to Boeing, but also because of the 650 other aerospace companies here, Washington state has become the epicenter of the aerospace industry in the United States,” says Randall Julin, who leads business development for Absolute Aviation Services.
“It is due to this concentration of aerospace activity and the supporting educational institutions that we are able to provide the supply chain requirements and skilled workforce necessary to sustain and grow this dynamic and leading edge industry,” he says.
Julin co-founded the company, which recently was purchased by Wencor LLC. The new owner kept the name and plans to grow the company in Washington. Absolute Aviation Services has grown from two people in 2004 to 34 people in 2012.
Washington provides a number of advantages for aerospace businesses, including a highly skilled workforce that builds on its long history of aerospace ingenuity and a cluster of highly integrated companies creating a critical mass of capabilities across the entire supply chain. Seattle has the largest concentration of aerospace workers in the nation.
The industry is divided into six sub clusters: airframe manufacturing; avionics; composites; engineering and research; tooling and interiors. The state offers a number of resources, programs and incentives that encourage and support industry growth.
Programs such as Air Washington, a consortium of 11 community and technical colleges that collaborate on aerospace-related training initiatives, have ensured the availability of a highly skilled workforce. The state's Centers of Excellence program promotes active collaboration while connecting with employers and educational institutions in key industries, including aerospace.
A location on the Pacific Rim and a fully developed national and international transportation network of major ports, rail, air and highway systems guarantees global access and adds to the state’s aerospace luster. So does the enthusiastic support of state officials.
“Both the governor’s office and the legislature have been very focused in their efforts in sustaining and advancing aerospace in the state," Julin says.
Collaboration Is Key
Heath Tecna is a major supplier of interior products for the passenger aircraft industry headquartered in Bellingham. In March 2010, Northwest Economic Council-Whatcom County and Washington Department of Commerce staff met with Heath Tecna executives to map out what would become a comprehensive business retention/expansion plan to fuel the company’s expansion effort.
That collaborative effort resulted in the creation of more than 400 jobs and support for Heath Tecna's contracts acquisition plans, bringing $40 million in new export business and establishing a foundation for future growth.
Since that initial meeting, Commerce Department staff has worked on two rounds of Workforce Investment Act funds to Heath Tecna, which included a governor-approved WIA grant of $75,000 for 100 new jobs. Another Commerce-directed WIA grant-in-process for $69,500 will train 150 new line workers and 10 incumbent engineers in computer-aided 3-D interactive applications.
A number of regional and state organizations have partnered in these efforts, including the Northwest Workforce Development Council, Impact Washington and Washington State Employment Security Office.
Company executives say the number of new hires through WIA-funded training will approach 500, and that the production training model pioneered during this project is a process they will use in the future, regardless of WIA money.
Julin credits that type of enthusiastic support at all levels among Washington's major advantages, and cites such legislative and executive action as creation of the Governor’s Council on Aerospace, assignment of a state director of aerospace, educational grants and loans and targeted aerospace tax incentives.
"I cannot think of a better place to start an aerospace company – it’s all here,” says Julin.