Business Columns & Blogs

Job market not always predictable

Here’s an interesting little factoid dropped in the middle of a news conference held by the governor at Boeing’s Renton plant last week to announce $3 million in worker training funds specifically targeted at aerospace:

Thirty percent of Boeing’s hourly work force is retirement eligible – today.

The engineering side of Boeing is in a similar situation, added Ray Conner, vice president and general manager for supply chain management and operations for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

That number is hardly unique to Boeing, or to the aerospace industry. Companies across a broad spectrum of industries are looking at the baby boomers and wondering how they’ll replace the production, experience and expertise that will leave with that huge cohort of workers when they retire.

Which ought to be great news for anyone in the graduating class of 2011, and those planning to exit high school and college for at least the next decade. Think of all the jobs and opportunities to come open – and at good wages too, given the competition for the labor supply.

Alas, life rarely works out so simply or prettily; complicating factors make it unlikely that employment prospects for the next generation of workers will be quite so abundant, or munificently rewarded, as we (and they) hope.

Why so? Start with that data point of 30 percent. Note that those are workers that are retirement eligible, not that they’ve actually filed to retire.

No doubt many will. But a lot of workers who are employed at all sorts of companies may be in no hurry to leave, especially if they have a spouse who lost a job, or their retirement savings took a beating in the downturn, or their pension plan is looking less robust than it once did, or their home is under water (figuratively, anyway), or they’re healthy, enjoy working and don’t find much appeal in retirement.

If those workers do leave, companies may be in no hurry to replace them. Companies may elect to close the labor-shortage gap with increased automation, by boosting productivity with the labor force they’ve got or by going somewhere that the labor is both abundant and inexpensive.

The worker of tomorrow may also find the job of tomorrow isn’t there the day after tomorrow.

Right now, Boeing is on a hiring tear, because of increased production rates for the 737 and 777, the refueling tanker deal, the introduction of the 787 and, yes, attrition. Tom Wroblewski, president of IAM District 751, said Boeing hires 500 IAM members a month. The governor, the company and the union hope to send a message to high school students that, as Gov. Chris Gregoire put it, aerospace offers them the chance to get “a wonderful job for the rest of their lives.”

But as veteran Boeing employees in this region can attest, aerospace is a dramatically cyclical business. A Boeing job is a great one to have when you’re in the up cycle, which the industry now is. But those wonderful jobs will endure as long as the industry avoids strangulating fuel prices, a global recession or some similar calamity – and that’s before dealing with the issue of whether that Boeing job of the future will in 20 years be in the Puget Sound region, or South Carolina, or China.

So sorry, kids, that great deal that you hoped would be yours isn’t quite as shiny and dent-free as advertised. Not only are we saddling you with debt for benefits we’ll be getting (but not you), we’re going to make it a challenge to get and keep a job to pay for that debt, never mind your own expenses.

You’re welcome.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at