People call it the “silver tsunami,” for those currently in senior positions in Kent's industrial valley. A massive wave of older, experienced workers is considering retirement at around the same time.
It comes at a time when manufacturers in the region find themselves under prepared. They haven’t trained enough new workers to replace those who will leave. And that failure has contributed to the decline of the middle class.
The recession held off the silver tsunami for a few years. But with the stock market back at pre-recession levels, the lure of retirement has grown strong for senior workers, who can practically smell those piña coladas served beach-side from a chilled coconut.
Rockie Ward, who is approaching retirement age but continues to work at Omax in Kent, is part of the problem. “I’m there too,” she said laughing. “A lot of us are still in the workforce because we love our jobs. And we worked for companies that really appreciate our skills.”
If she feels guilt, she’s working to make up for it. “My energy level – and the way I love my job – that’s what I put into recruiting people.”
It’s tough to recruit people for manufacturing jobs: Young people don’t often think of manufacturing for their careers, even though it can pay well for someone with the right skills.
So Ward keeps an eye out for unskilled people she believes would make good long-term prospects. “You can go from the janitor to the president of the company,” she says. “But I keep coming back to desire. You’ve got to have the desire and drive.”
During interviews with potential employees, Ward looks for that special quality.
“It’s almost like they’re bubbling over,” she said. “They just want to jump in and say, ‘Well, I can just do it if you give me the chance. Nobody will give me the chance!’”
Every so often, Ward fills an opening level position for someone like that. However, those positions are unusual (the last one was just filled), and most of the jobs she has to offer require more experience.
For years, manufacturers have been able to hire workers with skills and degrees — the kind of workers Boeing is laying off right now. Snapping up those workers might allow area manufacturers to hold off their own silver tsunamis a little longer. But it doesn’t solve the problem long term.
“We really need to look at the larger, structural economic shifts," said Polly Myers, who teaches history and labor at the University of Washington. She said industry’s talk about silver tsunamis, also called the "skills gap,” distracts us from deeper issues that led to the crisis.
Myers pointed to other labor shortages in history. During World War II, for example, the need for workers forced Boeing to open the door to women — the Rosie the Riveters.
“(Boeing) began putting out ads that said things like ‘No skill needed.’ 'Housewives who’ve never worked a day in their lives can begin to make a plane at Boeing; can enter with no experience whatsoever. It’s just like washing the dishes at home.’”
After the war, federal programs like the GI Bill kept a supply of skilled workers flowing into manufacturing jobs. Those programs led to the rise of the middle class.
Those programs are mostly gone now — and so is much of the middle class. The economic ladder is missing a couple of rungs. “We’re seeing people stuck at the lower ranks and not able to move up,” Myers said.
Myers said the trend has larger implications. “What does it mean to live in a democratic society if people don’t truly have equal opportunity?”
Industry is changing slowly and making small investments in apprenticeship programs that train people with fewer skills. Government has contributed to a patchwork of programs and scholarships designed to give unskilled workers a bit of help, but those programs can be tough to navigate. Myers said without the government more deeply involved, those efforts probably won’t rebuild the middle class.
Meanwhile, Rockie Ward at Omax has a list of unfilled positions as long as her arm. They may not be the right fit for everyone, but Ward said she’s happy to talk to unskilled workers to help them find a path into the industry.
“If you’re out there, I’m looking for you," she said. "Just call Rockie!”
KUOW's Region of Boom Team is filing stories from Renton, Kent and Auburn this month. Next, the team heads to Bremerton. If you have a story idea there, reach out to reporter Joshua McNichols or use our story submission form.