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Educators try to answer the question: Will there be aerospace jobs in Washington?

courtesy of Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center
Aerospace classes at Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center in Everett are among the most popular, with a 30- to 40-student waitlist every year.

John Monroe grew up in Everett and landed a job as a draftsman with the Boeing Co. in 1965, with just a high school diploma and a nine-week drafting course under his belt.

“I was making $1.92 an hour,” Monroe said.

That first gig launched a 37-year career with Boeing, and he retired in 2003 as a director of program management on the 777 wide-body jet. He also earned a degree along the way from the University of Puget Sound. Now, Monroe is chair of the advisory board on career and technical education for the Everett school district, and he mentors teens hoping to enter the aerospace industry.

But young people hoping to follow his path are increasingly asking the question: Will there be aerospace jobs for them here in Washington? The news that Boeing will end 787 Dreamliner production in Everett to build the plane in South Carolina comes amid an already bleak year in which air travel has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. And Boeing also has been struggling with the grounding of its 737 MAX single-aisle jet after two deadly crashes. More than 12,000 workers in Washington have left or plan to leave Boeing this year through a combination of voluntary and involuntary layoffs.

Monroe said his message to teens and young people is to not be deterred.

“We shouldn’t get so focused on commercial airplanes when we think about aerospace because aerospace includes defense and space, which is huge,” he said.

He points to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin, and Boeing itself, which is building the KC-46 tanker for the U.S. Airforce in Everett.

In the decades since Monroe began his career with the airplane maker, a whole education ecosystem has grown up in Washington to train young people for jobs at Boeing. Every year, teens and young adults take classes to learn aerospace mechanics or precision machining.

The Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center sits across the street from Boeing’s enormous Everett factory, where thousands of people build not only the 787 and the KC-46 tanker, but also the 747, 767 and 777. Wes Allen is director of the TECH Skills Center, which is part of the Mukilteo school district but serves students from 14 school districts in Snohomish County.

The TECH Skills Center offers classes in everything from cosmetology to dental assisting to video game design. But Allen said aerospace classes are among the most popular.

“Aerospace usually has about a 30- to 40-student waitlist,” Allen said.

What his educators are trying to do is give students a foundation in a variety of areas so that they have more options when they enter the job market.

“What I’m learning from my business partners is that when we’re preparing students for post-secondary or post-school, they need to be jack of all, master of none,” he said. “They need to be cross-trained in different areas because there’s very few shops and places that are purely just precision machining or purely just welding or purely just airplane manufacturing.”

And there are promising new areas beyond airplane manufacturing, educators say. Dana Riley Black, vice president for education at the Museum of Flight, pointed to electric aircraft research, development of alternative fuels for aviation and the drone industry.

“There’s a lot going on beyond the 787,” Black said. “Please hear me, my heart breaks for the Everett community. But I also think there’s more to it than that.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.