More than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, it’s clear that Washington manufacturers are contending with two issues that appear likely to remain with us for some time: supply chain disruption and a growing labor shortage.
Those two issues came up at nearly every stop last month during the Association of Washington Business’ annual bus tour of the state’s manufacturers. And we saw evidence firsthand as the bus crossed from Bremerton to Seattle as container ships sat anchored in Puget Sound.
The AWB bus tour visited more than two dozen locations throughout Washington including manufacturing companies, high school and college technical programs that are preparing the next-generation workforce, and sites like Rocky Reach Dam near Wenatchee and the Wild Horse Wind & Solar Facility near Vantage that are helping to provide Washington manufacturers with the low-cost, reliable energy that has long been one of our main competitive advantages.
The aim of the tour was to highlight the importance of Washington’s manufacturing sector, which currently employs 305,000 women and men in good-paying careers, and to call attention to the state’s goal of doubling the size of the sector in 10 years.
As always, it also served as a great reminder of the diversity of Washington’s manufacturing sector. We saw large employers like Boeing, Alaska Airlines and Vigor. We visited Jubilant HollisterStier, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Spokane that’s played a critical role in every stage of the pandemic.
We saw agriculture employers like Rainier Fruit in Selah, a major supplier for Walmart, and Frichette Winery in Benton City, a small company founded by a married couple on the slope of Washington’s renowned Red Mountain.
We presented our 2021 green manufacturing award to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, where researchers have developed a revolutionary new process for processing aluminum and other metals that greatly reduces energy consumption.
And we visited small and mid-size, multi-generation family-owned companies like Vaughan Co., a Montesano manufacturer of municipal and industrial chopper pumps that received AWB’s 2021 Manufacturer of the Year award.
This was AWB’s fifth annual manufacturing tour, and it marked a return to the format we used the first three years. Last year, the pandemic threw us a curve. We still toured the state to highlight manufacturing, but we couldn’t go inside the manufacturing facilities we visited.
Thankfully, this year we were able to get back inside to see operations up close, and get onto shopfloors to talk with the women and men who are helping to build Washington and the world.
Based on what we heard, manufacturers are scrambling to find new suppliers for needed materials, and they’re looking for talent everywhere they can, from high school and college technical skills programs to finding pathways for people who were formerly incarcerated.
Labor force participation, which is tracked by the AWB Institute down to the county level on a database called the Vitals, shows statewide participation at 64.7% in 2020. However, that number may decline in 2021 based on the number of people leaving the workforce.
We don’t expect either of these issues to be solved quickly, but like with most challenges they also bring opportunities. In some cases, the manufacturers we visited last month said they are responding to supply chain issues by looking for suppliers who are closer to home to provide the materials they need. This is one way the manufacturing sector can grow and help Washington achieve the goal of doubling the number of manufacturing firms in 10 years.
And for the young people we encountered at places like West Sound Technical Skills Center in Bremerton, Raisbeck Aviation High School in Tukwila, Wenatchee Valley College, Spokane Community College and WSU Tri-Cities, the current workforce shortage represents unprecedented opportunity to launch into lifelong careers.
We learned a lot by touring Washington’s manufacturers last month. No doubt the pandemic has caused major disruption. But manufacturers are resilient — and the future of manufacturing remains bright.
Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.