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Aerospace manufacturing a high-wage, growth industry for Spokane-area

June 1, 2017 GMT

Aerospace manufacturing is a growing, high-wage industry in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and one that local business leaders want to continue to nurture.

More than 200 Eastern Washington companies make parts for commercial and military aircraft, primarily in Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Across the border in Idaho, another 60 companies have ties to aerospace.

“We paint planes. We rerun the brakes … We make seat cushions,” said Doug Tweedy, regional labor economist with the Washington Employment Security Division. “We don’t actually build the planes, but we put components into them.”

Some of the locally made parts end up in Boeing’s planes, but Boeing isn’t the only game in town, Tweedy said. Other components end up in aircraft manufactured by Boeing competitor Airbus or Bombardier of Canada, or as custom decor for high-end private jets.

And there is one local airplane manufacturer: Quest Aircraft of Sandpoint, which makes a 10-seat turboprop plane called the Kodiak.

The industry pumps tens of millions of dollars into the local economy through purchases and wages. In Idaho, aerospace manufacturing jobs pay an average of $60,000 annually. In Spokane County, the average is around $73,500.

“It’s a high-wage, high-growth sector,” said Sam Wolkenhauer, a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor.

For airline parts suppliers, there’s more growth on the horizon, said John Byrne, Boeing’s vice president of airplane materials and structures.

Byrne was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s I-90 Corridor Aerospace Conference & Expo at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, which drew about 200 industry representatives. The conference was organized by the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium and Idaho Aerospace Alliance.

Over the next 20 years, about 40,000 new airplanes will be needed to keep pace with global demand for air travel. The value of those orders is about $5.9 trillion, Bryne said.

Much of the growth is coming from industrializing nations, where middle-class residents can now afford air travel.

At Boeing, one out of every three 737s rolling off the assembly line is headed to China.

“India is next,” Bryne said.

The 20-year forecast calls for 4 percent annual growth in global passenger travel, he said. However, another industry trend is the cost-savvy traveler, who’s looking for the lowest-priced plane ticket.

The quest for low fares puts pressure on airplane manufacturers to constantly increase quality and output while lowering production costs, Bryne said. That push for cost savings gets passed on to Boeing’s suppliers, he said.

“The supply chain feels the brunt of most of this,” he said.

In Spokane County, about 3,500 people work in aerospace manufacturing, said Tweedy, the labor economist.

Some of the larger aerospace manufacturers are Kaiser Aluminum, which rolls aluminum for airplanes as part of its product mix, and Triumph Group, which makes floor panels and ducting. Others include Exotic Metals, UTC Aerospace Systems and Aerospace Coatings.

Overall, Spokane County has 101 companies that make parts for airplanes. However, only nine companies are considered “direct suppliers,” which means that 50 percent or more of their business is tied to aerospace, Tweedy said.

Finding skilled labor is an upcoming challenge for the local aerospace industry, said Wolkenhauer, the Idaho Department of Labor economist.

North Idaho College is working to increase the labor pool through its Aerospace Center, which offers classes in areas such as aviation maintenance, composites and advanced manufacturing. However, demand for skilled labor is expected to grow faster than the number of qualified workers.

“The No. 1 constraint (on future growth) is the labor supply,” Wolkenhauer said.