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Forbes
Forbes
17 Feb 2024


US-AVIATION-BOEING-737MAX

Workers are pictured under the wing of a Boeing 737 MAX airliner with American Airlines markings at Renton Airport adjacent to the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on November 10, 2020.

AFP via Getty Images

In the last few years, when he’s walked the factory floors at aerospace parts makers, consultant Cliff Collier has noticed something new: large numbers of workers in their 20s. “I see a lot of younger people, more than in my career really,” he said.

It’s a seismic change in an industry where it can take years to master complicated assembly tasks done largely by hand. Those younger faces have replaced tens of thousands of experienced workers who were squeezed out at Boeing BA and its suppliers amid downsizing during the Covid pandemic.

Collier and other aerospace experts say the turnover has likely played a role in a steady drumbeat of quality issues that have dogged Boeing and fuselage supplier Spirit AeroSystems SPR over the last few years, culminating last month in the midair blowout of a panel plugging an unused door opening on an Alaska Airlines ALK Boeing 737 MAX. In an interim report on the incident released Feb. 6, federal safety investigators zeroed in on what appears to be a simple but dangerous mistake: workers at the 737 factory in Renton, Washington, failed to put back the four bolts needed to secure the panel after it was opened to allow access to replace nearby rivets that had been misinstalled at Spirit AeroSystems.

Two days before the report, Boeing said about 50 737 MAX jets, the company’s best-selling plane, would need rework due to holes in window frames that were incorrectly drilled holes by Spirit workers. In December, the company asked owners of recently delivered 737 MAX planes to inspect the rudder control system for loose bolts. And last summer, it slowed production of the plane due to holes that Spirit workers had drilled improperly in an aft bulkhead.

Current and former Boeing factory employees told Forbes that issues like these would be better avoided if new workers were given more training then they’re getting as they try to get up to speed in complicated tasks.

“If those employees are properly supported, they have good supervision, they have good quality control, they have good supply chain support, they do great work,” said Ed Pierson, a former 737 factory manager who testified before Congress in 2019 on safety problems at Boeing following the deadly crashes of two 737 MAX jets. “But when things are rough, parts are late or they're tired, an inexperienced worker can make a mistake.”

Boeing declined to comment on the impact of turnover in its manufacturing workforce or the adequacy of its training.

The changing demographics can be seen among the 31,000 members of the union that represents Boeing factory workers in the Seattle area, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers District 751. Before the pandemic, over half had six or more years of experience, union officials told Bank of America analysts. Now it’s 25% or less.

In 2020, Boeing shed 28,000 workers, reeling from the almost complete collapse of demand for new airplanes amid the Covid pandemic.

In the past two years, as Boeing worked to ramp production back up, many of those workers didn’t come back. Some retired as the pandemic accelerated a retirement wave that was long seen coming: in 2018 roughly 33% of IAM 751’s members were over 55.

Others had hired on with U.S. manufacturers in other industries that rode out the pandemic better.

In 2022 and 2023, Boeing trimmed 2,000 white-collar jobs but roughly another 15,000 employees left of their own accord, company financial filings show, many of them engineers and manufacturing workers, in a combination of retirements and job-hopping in a hot market for skilled labor.

Boeing has hired furiously to replace them. With the company’s commercial airplane factories swinging back into gear, it brought in 55,800 new workers from 2021 through 2023.

It’s much the same story at Spirit AeroSystems, the embattled builder of fuselages for Boeing airliners. During the pandemic it laid off 38% of its workforce at its core factories in Wichita, Kansas – roughly 5,000 workers – and has added back 4,700 since.

Throughout the industry, older workers have left with “tribal knowledge” that isn’t written down about how to put products together, says Raman Ram, a consultant to aerospace & defense companies at Ernst & Young.

Ram says a spike in employee turnover has become a reliable predictor of trouble at A&D plants: “If your percentage of new employees in the factory increases, there is a high likelihood that you're going to have a quality problem three months down the road,” he said.

Collier believes the loss of experience is behind a decline in the percentage of aircraft parts that come off the manufacturing line perfectly and don’t require additional work or scrapping. This is one of the factors that has slowed parts deliveries and prevented Boeing and Airbus from raising production rates.

Experience may be even more of an issue on the 737 MAX assembly line. An updated version of a plane that debuted in the 1960s, workers don't have the help of robots and other automation used to produce more modern airliners like the 787, or Airbus planes. The 737 MAX is essentially "handmade," said Pierson, who runs a group called the Foundation for Aviation Safety.

At Spirit and Boeing, assembly mechanics face the difficulties of working on large curved sections, often in cramped conditions, to install thousands of fasteners in a manner that’s much less repetitive or standardized than in the auto industry, said Collier. “You may be drilling and filling holes all day long, but they're not the same holes – they're different angles, there's different materials.”

Training for the flood of new hires has been insufficient, said Pierson. Former Boeing mechanic Brandon Sanders echoed those concerns as did a Boeing manufacturing insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation..

US-ACCIDENT-AVIATION-BOEING

Boeing workers walk outside Boeing's 737 factory in Renton, Wash., as teams inside held the first day of a "Quality Stand Down" for the 737 program January 25.

AFP via Getty Images

Boeing told Forbes new manufacturing workers receive 10 to 14 weeks of classroom training depending on their job. They then report to the factory for six to eight weeks of hands-on training with a team lead or experienced mechanic.

“That sounds a little high to me. I don’t think we get to see that,” Jon Holden, president of IAM 751, told Forbes.

In practice, it’s often more like eight weeks of classroom training, with little if any mentoring on the production line, said Pierson, Sanders and the insider, who has over a decade of production line experience.

He and Sanders, who worked on the 737 MAX and KC-46 tanker from 2018 through 2022, said they’ve frequently seen new workers who’ve struggled to read blueprints showing where components were supposed to be installed.

Meanwhile experienced workers are leaned on to work mandatory overtime to fix problems, something that can lead to fatigue and mistakes, the Boeing veterans say.

At a congressional hearing last week, FAA Administrator Mike Whittaker promised tighter oversight, and said he believed the agency needs “more boots on the ground” at Boeing. The Federal Aviation Administration has dispatched 20 inspectors to the 737 MAX factory and six to Spirit to audit the companies’ production processes. It’s also barred Boeing from increasing production of the MAX until the agency grants its permission.

Should FAA require Boeing and suppliers to employ more quality inspectors, it won’t be a quick fix, said Collier. “We don't have a cadre of qualified aerospace inspectors just sitting on the sidelines waiting for the coach to call.”

Boeing has said that since 2019 it’s raised the number of quality inspectors in its commercial airplane factories by 20%.

Under pressure from FAA and IAM, Boeing has restored many – but not all – of thousands of quality inspections that the company halted in 2019 in an erstwhile shift to sampling and monitoring of data from “smart” tools, like torque wrenches connected by Bluetooth so the amount of force applied can be tracked.

Boeing once was the dominant employer in the Seattle area, but it’s now facing competition for skilled labor from space and tech companies — particularly Amazon for coveted software engineers. Meanwhile, with no new commercial plane programs on the horizon until the 2030s, experts say it’s become less attractive for engineers looking to do ambitious work.

Over the past three years, 3.5% of engineers who have left Boeing have gone to Amazon and 3.1% to Blue Origin, making them the second- and third-leading landing spots, respectively, according to the workforce data analysis company Revelio Labs. (No. 1 is Northrop Grumman NOC , drawing 4.8% of the engineers who have exited Boeing.)

Boeing kept a lid on wages for commercial airplane manufacturing workers in bitter contract talks with IAM in 2014, and eliminated their pension plan. That’s made the company less competitive as labor markets have tightened, observers say. Starting pay ranges from $16 to $26 an hour. In Seattle, following minimum wage hikes, food app companies like Doordash and Instacart say delivery workers’ pay now starts at $26 an hour.

But Boeing’s contract with the machinists union is set to end in September, and this time around labor is holding strong cards, with unemployment low and the company desperate to raise production. Starting ask: a pay hike of more than 40%. The union is also seeking a guarantee Boeing’s next airliner will be built in the Seattle area (the 787 is produced in South Carolina by non-union workers), less designated overtime and more quality inspections.

Boeing CEO David Calhoun has repeatedly stated the company will do what it takes to restore the confidence of customers and the FAA. “This increased scrutiny, whether it comes from us, from our regulator, or from third parties, will make us better,” he told analysts on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call January 31.

That’s likely true, said Collier. But it’s going to take time for the company and regulators to thoroughly work through the production process and make changes.

“When they finish all this, they're going to be really good, but they're not going to finish all this probably for a couple years,” he said.