WASHINGTON — Roughly a quarter of the nation's 637,000 aerospace workers could be eligible for retirement this year, raising fears that America could be facing a serious skills shortage in the factories that churn out commercial and military aircraft.
"It's a looming issue that's getting more serious year by year," said Marion Blakey, the president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association. "These are real veterans. It's a hard workforce to replace."
The AIA, which represents aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, has designated the potential skills drain as one of its top 10 priorities in this year's presidential race. One of the major unions that represent aerospace workers also is embracing the issue in a rare alliance between labor and management.
"It's not a problem that's coming," said Frank Larkin, the spokesman for the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "It's here."
The issue particularly resonates in aircraft manufacturing centers such as the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas, the St. Louis metropolitan area, the Puget Sound region in Washington state and Wichita, Kan., which bills itself as the "Air Capital of the World."
"Obviously, we are concerned that we have a large portion of our workforce that in five years, 10 years, will pick up and go," said Marivel Neeley, the senior manager of equal opportunity programs at Lockheed Martin's plant in Fort Worth.
Fort Worth is the headquarters for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., which employs nearly 25,000 workers in seven cities, including major plants in Fort Worth, Marietta, Ga., and Palmdale, Calif.
Of the company-wide workforce, 27 percent, or roughly 6,000 employees, would be eligible to retire this year, Neeley said.
In Wichita, which has five major aircraft plants and hundreds of suppliers and vendors, community leaders are pursuing measures to offset the potential loss of more than 40 percent of the aeronautics workforce over the next five years. One initiative calls for the creation of a world-class aviation training center to help meet the need for an additional 12,000 aerospace workers by 2018.
The impact varies by community. The Seattle-Tacoma area appears to be bucking the trend through a production surge at Boeing plants that's expanded the workforce with new hires from across the generational spectrum, including a growing number of workers between the ages of 18 and 29.
But nationally, the aerospace workforce is graying as the baby boom generation prepares to retire.
Ten years ago, the industry's largest age group was 35 to 44. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of the workforce was 45 or older. At least 20 percent were between the ages of 55 to 64, and many, if not most, were already eligible for retirement, according to the AIA. An additional 2 percent — or 12,203 employees — were 65 or older.
The problem is essentially one of supply and demand. Both the commercial and military segments of the industry are enjoying robust growth, with sales expected to increase by $12 billion this year. The demand for aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer engineering disciplines this year is expected to be double what it was 10 years ago.
But analysts and corporate bosses say that colleges and universities are turning out far too few engineering and aeronautical graduates to fill future vacancies. Public schools' poor record in teaching math and science is another worry. And as the boomers aged, the birthrate declined, resulting in a diminished pool of replacements.
Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor who served as the chief economist for the Labor Department, said the problem ultimately might be resolved by market forces. But for the moment, he said, "it won't be painless, and some real adjustments may have to occur."
Although production workers in aerospace earn more than those in most other manufacturing industries — an average of $1,153 a week, according to the Department of Labor — Holzer said the industry doesn't have the recruitment appeal that it did decades ago during the Cold War. Many young job-seekers, he says, now regard aerospace plants as "old-fashioned industries."
A mass exodus of older workers also means the loss of a vast reservoir of knowledge, skills and institutional memory dating back to the early years of the Vietnam War. Atlee Cunningham Jr., an engineer and senior fellow at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant, calls it a "gut feel" that can't be learned in books or training manuals.
Cunningham, 69, has been at the plant for 42 years and predates the computer-driven technological revolution that has accompanied the growth of the aerospace industry over the past four-plus decades. He loves his job and has no plans to leave.
"When I turned 65, I said I'll give the company five more years," he said. "Each year, I keep saying five more years."
Cunningham holds a doctoral degree and is a widely recognized expert in a highly specialized discipline known as aero-elasticity. In addition to his vast technological knowledge, said Cunningham, he and other senior employees have a kind of sixth sense that they honed from decades of doing.
"Sometimes a more senior person can be asked a question. He can work out the answer on the back of envelope and give it back in 10 minutes," said Cunningham. "There's a lot of advantage to having us around."
Mindful of the ominous demographic trends, industry, labor and community leaders are teaming to cultivate the next generation of workers. At Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said Neeley, the company leadership is aggressively pursuing a strategy to attract workers and retain veterans who can mentor younger colleagues.
The initiatives include internships, aggressive recruitment in colleges and universities and an outreach into public schools to get students interested in math and sciences. In some instances, teachers have been invited to the plant to get insight into the aerospace industry that can be passed along to students.
Neeley believes the company can replace its retirees, but she acknowledged, "I think that's a concern of the future."
In Wichita, groundbreaking is expected this spring on the $50 billion National Center for Aviation Training to help perpetuate the region's stature as a world leader in aviation. Wichita has an estimated 35,000 aerospace workers and accounts for nearly half of general aviation deliveries in the United States.
"We're really attacking it as an opportunity," said Jim Schwarzenberger, a vice president for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Preserving and bolstering the aerospace workforce also is a major objective in the Seattle-Tacoma region, where Boeing is a leading employer. "We've postured ourselves to manage this," said Dianna Peterson, Boeing's director of strategic workforce planning.
Edmonds Community College and the University of Washington both offer advanced education in composites and other aircraft materials. Boeing also is working with labor to reinvigorate apprentice programs and other "knowledge transfer" concepts that pass aerospace know-how from one generation to another.
EMPLOYMENT AT MAJOR AIRCRAFT MANUFACTURING CENTERS FOR 2006 (latest figures available)
Seattle-Tacoma region (Washington)
Total employment: 1,218,400
Aerospace: 69,900 (5.7 percent)
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington (Texas)
Total employment: 2,496,900
Aerospace: 35,700 (1.4 percent)
Total employment: 252,900
Aerospace: 36,200 (14.3 percent)
St. Louis metropolitan area (Missouri-Illinois)
Total Employment: 1,138,380
Aerospace: 14,683 (1.2 percent)
THE TOP FIVE AEROSPACE STATES
Source: Aerospace Industries Association