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Expanding workforce training, industry collaboration key to growing manufacturing industry, observers say

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 16, 2021

A worker at Wagstaff Inc. drills materials at the manufacturer’s Spokane Valley plant on March 24, 2020. The state has a goal of doubling its number of manufacturing jobs by 2031.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review )
A worker at Wagstaff Inc. drills materials at the manufacturer’s Spokane Valley plant on March 24, 2020. The state has a goal of doubling its number of manufacturing jobs by 2031. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review )

Expanding workforce training, industry collaboration and raising awareness of manufacturing careers are key to reaching the state’s goal of doubling jobs in the manufacturing sector in the next decade, industry experts say.

“This topic of increasing manufacturing jobs in Washington state is one we’re very excited about,” Lisa Brown, the state’s commerce director said at the Association of Washington Business’s annual Policy Summit this week in Spokane.

Brown was among four panelists who spoke Wednesday at the Davenport Grand Hotel about boosting manufacturing jobs, during the panel discussion “2021 Manufacturing: High-tech & Beyond.”

The Commerce Department is forming a manufacturing council consisting of industry leaders across the state to develop strategies for bolstering the manufacturing sector. The department is in the process of hiring a workforce innovation director to work with the council, Brown said.

“We know that workforce is a very key part of this challenge to build our manufacturing base,” Brown said. “We have a lot going for us in terms of the diversity of industries in which we can be competitive in attracting new manufacturing jobs.

“Clean energy is very significant, and we have a lot going on there from solar to battery storage. We’ve got the whole chain from research and our research universities. The challenge for us, I think, is to pull together the recommendations, the workforce strategies.”

The Commerce Department also is developing a cluster accelerator program based on a successful model in Norway to solve supply chain and public policy challenges, she said.

In 2019, the manufacturing sector employed 305,300 workers in the state, earning an average wage of $81,200, according to an AWB study.

The study – conducted by High Peak Strategy for the AWB – found the manufacturing industry is competitive nationwide.

“As you can imagine, lots of other states are really crafting policies to try to take what Washington state has and are being highly competitive in that space,” said Spencer Cohen, principal and founder of Seattle-based High Peak Strategy. “ Other states are investing in workforce training. They’re investing in tax incentives that are tied to job creation. And they’re also investing in programs that help companies navigate the regulatory system much more effectively, including, for instance, every five years reviewing permitting processes and regulatory structures to assess whether those programs are actually working or not.”

The manufacturing industry is facing significant challenges in reaching the state’s goal of doubling employment by 2031, said Chris Rankin, vice president of Yakima-based farm equipment supplier Rankin Equipment Co.

“We have to remember there’s a lot of things that are important to think about, and number one is skilled labor,” Rankin said. “As a manufacturer, we’re always looking for skilled labor.”

It will be important for manufacturing companies to partner with lawmakers to invest in trade and technical schools to support industry growth, Rankin said.

Rankin said public and private partnerships are also integral to reducing regulatory barriers encountered by small manufacturing businesses.

Collaboration between the manufacturing industry and schools will be significant to growing the sector’s workforce, Brown said.

Michael Schutzler, CEO of Washington Technology Industry Association, said the state’s booming tech sector resulted from a high concentration of a skilled technical workforce.

However, he said, the state has “systematically defunded” higher education in the past 25 to 30 years, resulting in more companies recruiting out-of-state workers.

“For the state of Washington to continue to be successful in attracting the talent and building the workforce of the future, which is highly skilled, it has to invest in its workforce. … There’s hundreds of thousands of people in this state who are perfectly capable of doing the jobs we create – they just need the right training,” Schutzler said. “And that’s not going to happen if we expect the apprentices themselves or industry itself to solve that problem. That requires a public-private collaboration.”

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