Air Washington was a consortium of 11 Washington community and technical colleges that received a $20 million federal grant from 2011 to 2015 to train students for aerospace careers. The colleges were Big Bend Community College, Clover Park Technical College, Everett Community College, North Seattle College, Olympic College, Peninsula College, Renton Technical College, Skagit Valley College, South Seattle College, Spokane Community College, and Wenatchee Valley College. The grant -- officially called a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant --allowed the Air Washington schools to hire faculty, add classes, launch new programs, and purchase new training equipment. The five main clusters of instruction were aircraft maintenance, composites, avionics/electronics, advanced manufacturing/precision machining, and aircraft assembly. Before the grant expired in fall 2015, Air Washington had enrolled more than 4,700 students and more than 1,600 had already landed jobs, mostly in aerospace. Both of these numbers easily surpassed Air Washington's original goals.
In 2010, Washington's unemployment rate had reached a Great Recession high of 10.4 percent. At the same time, the Boeing Company -- the airplane-manufacturing giant that had long been the state's largest private employer -- was gearing up for production on numerous projects, including the 787 and 737 MAX airliners and an Air Force tanker. Boeing, along with hundreds of Washington aerospace supplier companies, faced a shortage of qualified workers. Thousands of workers were unemployed across the state, but few had the skills to build airplanes.
That year, several Washington community-college presidents with an interest in aerospace training, including Joe Dunlap of Spokane Community College, Bill Bonaudi of Big Bend Community College, and David Beyer of Everett Community College, heard about an upcoming U.S. Department of Labor program which was preparing to award nearly $2 billion in grants to community colleges for job-training programs. These grants were part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative, also known by its ungainly acronym TAACCCT. This was a component of the stimulus program implemented by President Barack Obama (b. 1961), aimed at getting people back to work, launching unskilled workers on middle-class careers, and pulling the U.S. out of its worst recession since the Great Depression.
The community-college presidents looked into the grants and realized that they might be ideally suited to a goal they were already pursuing: training students in the skills needed for jobs in the state's aerospace industry. The presidents also realized that in order to make the maximum statewide impact, they should join together and apply for the grants not as individual colleges, but as a statewide consortium. They assembled 11 community and technical colleges into a consortium they branded Air Washington, and applied for the three-year grant in April 2011. Spokane Community College, which had been the driving force behind the idea, was chosen as the lead institution.
The consortium's grant proposal cited a pressing need to insure a steady flow of skilled workers for the Boeing Company and the hundreds of other aerospace companies in Washington. The aerospace industry had been crucial to Washington's economy since at least World War II. In fact, the state's prosperity had often risen and fallen along with the fortunes of the Boeing Company. By 2011, some of the state's political and business leaders were apprehensive about the state's aerospace future, because the Boeing Company had moved its headquarters to Chicago and had opened a new airplane plant in South Carolina. However, the company's biggest assembly plants remained in Renton and Everett and Boeing was gearing up to fill a number of big contracts at those plants. Boeing officials were concerned that there "weren't enough young people, or even displaced workers, that were thinking about aerospace as a viable career," according to Michael Greenwood, a Boeing workforce executive at the time (Greenwood interview).
Getting the Grant
The grant proposal pointed out that the existing aerospace programs in the state's community colleges had waiting lists of more than 300 students, meaning that students might have to wait a year to get into a program. Neither the students nor the aerospace manufacturers could afford that kind of wait. The consortium proposed to immediately expand the existing programs by hiring more faculty, purchasing more equipment, and adding more classes. It also promised to provide increased opportunities for veterans and minorities, to accelerate progress for low-skilled workers, and to convert laid-off workers in fading industries into productive aerospace workers.
The federal Department of Labor required that each grant proposal have three legs of support. First, it had to have a strong industry partner, to help ensure that the students were being trained in the precise skills the industry needed. The consortium submitted a letter of commitment in which Boeing and a coalition of hundreds of other Washington aerospace companies vowed to "serve as subject matter experts" and "hire qualified candidates" ("Air Washington Grant Proposal"). Second, it had to have the support of the state's Workforce Development Councils, which were experts in connecting people with jobs. The third leg of support had to come from the state's educational institutions. Since 11 colleges were committed to providing the classes, the teachers and the training, that leg was solid as well.
The consortium chose to concentrate its training on five crucial disciplines, all vital to the aerospace industry:
- Aircraft maintenance, also known as airframe and
- Composites manufacturing and repair. Composite parts
are increasingly used in place of sheet metal in airplane manufacturing.
and avionics, which are the complex nerve centers of airplanes.
- Advanced manufacturing
and precision machining, necessary for both metal and composites manufacturing.
- Aircraft assembly, which was in especially high demand near the Boeing assembly
plants in Renton and Everett.
In addition, the colleges proposed to teach preemployment skills, including interview skills, language skills, and the basic vocabulary of the aerospace industry.
In all, the proposal asked for the maximum grant -- $20 million spread between the 11 schools. The proposal set an enrollment goal of 2,615 trainees and an employment-after-graduation goal of 795. Spokane Community College president Dunlap was confident that the grant writers had a created a grant proposal that was good for the state and "very powerful" (Dunlap interview). Yet the writers also knew that they were asking for a great deal of money and that their proposal would be competing with many other proposals. Between April and September of 2011, the grant writers remained in limbo while they waited for the Department of Labor to announce the grant recipients. On September 26, 2011, they received the official call: They had received the entire $20 million. Air Washington would officially launch in less than a week. Carol Weigand, one of the grant writers, who became the Air Washington director, recalled "It was kind of like asking for an elephant for Christmas and getting one" (Weigand interview).
Launching Air Washington
Air Washington's official launch announcement was held in October 2011 at South Seattle College, with U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) in attendance. All 11 colleges immediately began hiring faculty, purchasing equipment, and adding new class capacity. In some cases, this was done relatively rapidly. Five of the colleges were already offering aircraft-maintenance programs, with the curriculum and infrastructure in place. In some cases, colleges were able to immediately double the number of students entering the programs. In some other cases, however, it took longer as colleges had to develop entire programs, such as composites and avionics, from scratch. In some cases, new curriculum had to be written, which was then shared with the other colleges. Hiring faculty proved to be a challenge. A teacher with up-to-date skills in composites, for instance, could often make better money in industry than as a community or technical college instructor. However, the colleges overcame these challenges and by September 2012 most of Air Washington's programs were in place and training students.
Here's what each college offered:
- Big Bend Community College --
- Clover Park Technical College -- advanced manufacturing,
aircraft maintenance, composites
- Everett Community College -- advanced manufacturing,
aircraft maintenance, composites
- North Seattle College -- electronics-avionics
College -- advanced manufacturing, composites, electronics-avionics
College -- composites
- Renton Technical College -- advanced manufacturing,
- Skagit Valley College -- advanced manufacturing, composites
Seattle College -- aircraft maintenance
- Spokane Community College -- advanced
manufacturing, aircraft maintenance, composites, electronics-avionics
- Wenatchee Valley College -- electronics-avionics
Any apprehension about student demand was soon allayed. Classes were filling up and by the halfway point of the original three-year grant most of the colleges reported that they were well on their way to meeting their enrollment goals. The extensive use of "navigators" -- advisers whose responsibility was to help students "navigate" through all phases of the program -- deserved much of the credit for this success. Navigators had been used in other projects before, but never to the extent that Air Washington used them. They steered students into the program. They helped them stay in the program by helping them find tuition grants and day care. Then they used their connections with the aerospace industry to help them find jobs. Dave Cox, the dean of technical education at Spokane Community College and the lead administrator of the Air Washington grant, later called navigators "the tough-love moms to the students that need it" (Cox interview). The navigators proved to be crucial, since many of Air Washington's students had never attended college before or hadn't been in school for many years.
Who were Air Washington's students? Their average age was 33. About 10 percent were women. About 14 percent were veterans. About 20 percent were low-skilled workers, meaning they were initially deficient in English or math and had to improve to be college-ready. Many already had families or dependents to support. Between 1 and 2 percent had seen their jobs sent overseas. Many more began the program unemployed or underemployed.
Some took improbable routes to Air Washington. Adam Stratton was a youth minister who was laid off during the recession and unable to find work in that field. He and his wife had four kids and were barely scraping by. Then he found out about Air Washington's programs through Spokane Community College's navigator. He entered the program and graduated with an advanced manufacturing/precision machining degree and also earned some composites certifications. He was eventually hired as a computer numerical control (CNC) machinist at Honeywell, the international aerospace, energy, and defense giant, which has a plant in Spokane Valley. He credited Air Washington with changing the course of his work life: "Without Air Washington being here and offering up the advanced manufacturing program, I honestly probably would have gone a different direction" (Stratton interview).
Baylee Ballard was a single mom trying to scrape by on a low-paying job as an in-home caregiver and "wasn't getting anywhere" in that career (Ballard interview). She found out about Air Washington's Spokane Community College programs, took classes in composites, and was hired by Multifab Inc., a Spokane composites company that makes parts for airplanes and other industry. "I would like to keep it as my career," she said in 2015 (Ballard interview).
Levi Hay of Ephrata was trying to support his wife and three children on a low-paying retail job. His wife saw an ad for Air Washington's aerospace-electronics-technicians program at Wenatchee Valley College and he said, "Wow, I don't know if we can afford it, but we should look into it" (Hay interview). The navigator at the school arranged for financial aid and he enrolled. Hay continued to work part-time while he got two associate's degrees, in aerospace electronics and industrial electronics. After graduating in 2014 he landed a job with Takata, an international manufacturing firm with a plant in Moses Lake. He said there was "no way" he would have been ready for such a job without the basics of "how electricity works, how sensors function, how a pneumatic cylinder raises or lowers, how the valves work, how the industrial computers work, how they're programmed to think" (Hay interview).
Some students entered the program after long careers in other industries that had been battered by the recession, such as construction. Others, like Joe Kelley, simply saw a better future with a skilled job in aerospace. Kelley, who graduated from Clover Park Technical College, went from being the manager of a Tacoma pizza store to working as a composites applicator at Boeing's Advanced Developmental Center.
Springboard to the Middle Class
By early 2013, just past the midpoint of the original three-year grant, an independent assessment of Air Washington's progress was conducted through Washington's State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The "Air Washington Mid-Term Progress Report" found that nearly all of the colleges were meeting their enrollment goals and that the program was, in most aspects, accomplishing what it intended. It found a few "challenges to success," including the cyclical nature of the state's aerospace industry; some over-ambitious goals for the training of veterans; and the fact that two of the outcome goals of Air Washington proved to conflict with each other. Air Washington had a goal of giving trainees multiple exit points, which meant that students had the freedom to take one or two courses, get a certificate, and leave and get a job, but it also had a goal of helping students graduate with two-year college degrees. As it turned out, more students were interested in earning certificates quickly and landing a job, rather than sticking around for a two-year degree. Consequently Air Washington had already blasted through its goal for "short certificates," those taking less then one year, while lagging in its two-year degree goal.
Ultimately the assessment concluded that "the Air Washington project, as a whole, is going well" ("Air Washington Mid-Term Progress Report"). An appendix to the midterm report specified that, as of December 2012, 2,730 people had received training -- already surpassing the project's overall goal of 2,615. By this time, Air Washington was beginning to receive recognition as one of the TAACCCT grants' success stories. In July 2012 Jill Biden (b. 1951), wife of Vice President Joe Biden (b. 1942), visited South Seattle College's Boeing Field hangar and said "the common thread I see through all these stories is that the students that have come through these programs really love their jobs" (Robinson). In 2014 Dave Cox of Spokane Community College, who had become the voice of Air Washington, was invited to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on aviation about how and why Air Washington had become such a success.
In March 2014 Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez visited the Boeing Company's 737 assembly plant in Renton and said that "Americans are using programs like this one as a springboard to the middle class -- a better, more secure living for their families" ("US Labor Secretary at Boeing"). In fact, Air Washington was doing so well that, in late 2013, Air Washington applied to the Department of Labor for a fourth year, at no additional cost. This was partly to make up for the relatively slow start it had gotten when the grant was awarded with less than a week's notice in 2011. The Department of Labor approved the one-year extension, which meant that Air Washington would continue through September 2015.
The most popular program was avionics-electronics, which had become an increasingly complex and crucial part of aircraft manufacturing over the decades. In the words of Craig Seybold, Olympic College's lead instructor for avionics-electronics, the days of "pulling a joystick, which moves a wire, which moves an aileron" were gone (Seybold interview). As of early 2015, the avionics-electronics programs had enrolled 1,028 trainees, followed by aircraft maintenance with 989, advanced manufacturing-precision machining with 881, composites with 649, and aircraft assembly (offered at only Renton Technical College), with 469.
Of the Air Washington colleges, Everett Community College, with its long aerospace training history and its proximity to Boeing, had enrolled the most trainees, 950, as of summer 2015. The other Puget Sound colleges had the bulk of the remaining students, yet Air Washington was also training students in rural areas, such as Moses Lake, Wenatchee, and even, through a Wenatchee Valley College satellite extension program, in remote Omak.
Air Washington, as part of the federal grant requirements, made rigorous measurements of "outcomes," meaning that it tracked students both while they were in the program and after they completed it. As the Air Washington grant wound down in mid-2015, the outcome numbers far exceeded most of the program's goals. The number of trainees enrolled hit 4,722 (original goal, 2615); the short certificates earned were at 3,997 (original goal, 481); the long certificates earned (those taking longer than a year) were at 786 (original goal, 395); and trainees employed after completion hit 1,605 (original goal, 795). Administrators expected these employment numbers to continue to go up even after the Air Washington grant expired, since there was often a lag time between completion and landing a job.
The employment numbers proved to be the most challenging to compile, since it meant tracking students after they left the program. Yet Air Washington required each college to track students three times after they left the program: at the three-, six-, and nine-month marks. After taking into account foreign students who were not allowed to accept jobs because of visa restrictions, or students who said they were not seeking a job and were continuing on with college, and a number of other factors, the Air Washington employment rate was calculated at between 72 and 81 percent.
The average annual salary for graduates who landed jobs in the aerospace field was $34,204. Those with jobs at Boeing -- Air Washington's top employer, which had hired 241 graduates by mid-2015 -- were making significantly more. They averaged $49,189, although this figure included some trainees who had worked at Boeing previously and had been rehired. Even the new, mostly entry-level, Boeing hires were making an average of $35,314. At least 50 other companies, many of them aerospace suppliers, had also hired three or more Air Washington graduates by mid-2015. Some of the suppliers' entry-level salaries were not much higher than minimum wage, yet most of these companies offered considerably more opportunity for advancement than the low-wage jobs many of the graduates had before -- assuming they had jobs.
Factors in Success
When Cox testified before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on aviation in 2014, he identified several crucial factors in Air Washington's success. It had included the aerospace industry as a partner from the beginning, which ensured that instructors were teaching the correct skills and that jobs were waiting at the end. The extensive use of navigators meant that students always had someone to guide them through school and into the employment world.
The sheer size and scope of Air Washington, with 11 colleges spread across the state, was also one of the factors in its success. It was big enough to "move the needle" on employment (Simmons interview) and big enough to have an impact on the workforce -- and certainly big enough to get the attention of the aerospace industry. Greenwood said that there was "no doubt" that it "had an influence on the [Boeing] company and its decisions ... Air Washington was a good place to plant the seed: Washington could become the aerospace training hub in the United States. And in some skills, maybe, even the world" (Greenwood interview).
According to Alex Pietsch, director of Washington's Office of Aerospace and the spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee (b. 1951) on the subject, "[Air Washington] provided a huge infusion of resources to train folks up at a critical time for the industry here in Washington ... I think it demonstrated for us the need to continue to fund these programs at high levels. Obviously, we'd love to have the federal funding ongoing ... but it has also prompted us to invest at the state level in these programs as well" (Pietsch interview).
In 2013 the Washington State Legislature passed a funding package that included $8 million to train 1,000 students per year in aerospace. All 11 colleges in the consortium applied for and received a portion of those funds to sustain some of the most successful parts of the Air Washington program.The college presidents who first conceived of Air Washington were convinced it had accomplished the goals they had set out for it. According to David Beyer of Everett Community College, "There are a lot of people working in the aerospace industry now who weren't otherwise going to get that opportunity" (Beyer interview). Joe Dunlap of Spokane Community College (who had moved on in 2012 to become president of North Idaho College), said "That's what community college is about: Putting people to work ... I think it changed people's lives -- including the people who were involved in the grant" (Dunlap interview).