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The Boeing 737 lesson: Good schools = good jobs

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 3, 2011 at 5:35 pm with No Comments »
December 2, 2011 5:38 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

A highly trained work force was a decisive factor – probably the decisive factor – in Boeing’s decision to build the 737 Max in Washington. Paying attention, lawmakers?

Supporters of a first-rate educational system – ourselves among them – tend to talk themselves silly about the connection between schooling, economic growth and jobs. But abstract statistics aren’t nearly as persuasive as the 20,000 jobs the 737 Max project will nail down in this state for many years to come.

The equation behind this triumph was simple: Good public schools + work force training + university engineering programs = busy assembly lines in Renton. And all of the above hinges on healthy funding for Washington’s K-12 system and public colleges.

But let’s give abundant credit to the Machinists Union whose members actually put Boeing’s airplanes together in this state.

The best training on the planet isn’t worth a rusty rivet if it doesn’t punch in when the shift starts. In years past, the machinists have been overly infatuated with strikes that have disrupted delivery schedules and exacted high costs from both Boeing and the airlines that buy its jets.

The company no doubt did plenty to poison its relationship with the machinists, but the fact remains that the strikes weighed heavily against expansion in Washington – as demonstrated by Boeing’s creation of a new Dreamliner production line in right-to-work South Carolina.

But the strike culture at Boeing appears to be a thing of the past. Wednesday’s announcement was the culmination of lengthy secret talks between union leaders and Boeing executives. Whatever happened in those talks produced a new four-year labor contract, a union promise to stop the Obama administration’s move against the South Carolina plant – and the 737 Max project’s piñata of high-wage machinist jobs.

Labor peace alone can’t build airplanes, though; the workers must possess formidable skills. Washington offered Boeing more expert airplane-builders – and existing assembly lines – than any other state. Once the leaders of Boeing and the Machinists struck a deal, the company found it hard to walk away from the state’s talented aerospace work force.

But expertise must be renewed with every crop of high school graduates.

Despite the state’s fiscal crisis, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed new investments in science and math education. For good reason: Roughly half of the people who build 737s for Boeing in this state are within about five years of retirement. The company needs a constant stream of new blood from technical colleges and engineering schools. So do other, smaller companies that don’t show up on the radar but still drive the economy.

Moral for the Legislature: Make sure Washington’s work force remains talented. Don’t gut the public colleges or weaken the public schools.

Aerospace is only the most visible example of how the education dot connects with the jobs dot. Ultimately, the entire state economy depends on strong schools and college opportunity. Even in the depths of economic distress, lawmakers must keep those dots connected.

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