The Boeing 737 MAX will not be assembled in Spokane, but that is about the only downside to the company’s decision to keep production of its most popular airplane in Washington.
The choice comes months before a decision from Boeing had been expected, and after months of hand-wringing over the possibility the company might build a new plant in another state, notably Texas, which was reportedly offering $50 million for MAX.
Tellingly, the choice was announced not by Boeing but by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose oft-striking members have cost the company billions. The union agreed to a four-year contract – yet to be ratified – that committed Boeing to remaining in Renton, where 737s have been assembled since 1968.
The deal would be unprecedented and may signal a new period of cooperation between the two sides. Both have learned some hard lessons.
Delivery of the first Boeing 787 in September was three years late, in part because of a new production model that relied on outsourcing and construction of a new assembly line in South Carolina. The delays were costly and disrupted customer relationships.
The Machinists lost their hold on hundreds of South Carolina jobs, which prompted a wrong-headed National Labor Relations Board investigation that probably will be set aside if the new contract is ratified.
With Boeing and the Machinists on the same page, Washington legislators still have some work to do.
Thousands of Boeing workers will be retiring within the next few years. They must be replaced, and thousands more added, to fill billions of dollars in new orders – 700 already for the MAX. To produce those workers, the state must create an education pipeline that reaches all the way down to middle schools.
Despite budget pressures, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a legislative package that provides $9.8 million for training in aerospace-related skills in high school and graduating more engineers from Washington State University and the University of Washington. The two schools have been turning away applicants because they do not have space for them.
The state money would supplement a recent U.S. Department of Labor award of $20 million to train 2,600 aerospace workers. Boeing and its suppliers will need many more than that, which is where Spokane reconnects with these grand plans.
The Inland Northwest Aerospace Technology Center already offers courses in related trades. More than 60 area companies are aerospace suppliers. Spokane International Airport has been attracting some of those companies and has the space to accommodate many more. The combination of those resources will become more attractive as the ramp-up of MAX production stabilizes the outlook for the industry in the Northwest.
Washington needed a shot of good economic news. Spokane’s turn will come.