Sunday, January 15, 2006

Memo to Boeing. Skip the Geritol and train some kids.

I've been reading an interesting article today in the Seattle paper which compares the production culture in Boeing and in Airbus plants.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2002740839_toulouse15.html

In it the most significant part is referred to in passing and that is the relative ages of the worker bees in the factories of Airbus and of Boeing. Boeing's average production worker is 49 years old, while Airbus' average production worker is 30 years or so old.

This tells me a couple of things.

First, the constant buildups and layoffs that have characterized the American aircraft manufacturing industry ensures that the only people who get to stay put are those who have managed to accumulate enough seniority and bump rights so that they're never out of a job. In my department at Douglas back in 1992 there were 55 inspectors After 4 years I was fourth from the bottom. The highest seniority employee hired in in 1948, the year I was born.

Most of the inspectors had sufficient seniority so when the cutbacks and layoffs started coming they were insulated from all but plant closures. As departments in plant closed, they exercised their bargained for bumping rights to push young folk out on the street and into an uncertain future. When the first wave of layoffs in the MD11 program started coming, one young mechanic walked into the bathroom in the lobby of Building 2, took out a revolver and committed suicide.

It appears that the same thing may be true with Boeing-there is a gerontocracy of determined oldsters with super seniority that will defeat any new blood they hire in the next slowdown in the aircraft cycle. Not that I have anything particular against old folks, being one myself, but someone who's knocked down thirty years in an aircraft plant with the mountain of benefits that accrue ought to down tools and make room for some new folks coming along. It's called sharing the wealth.

It also tells me that Boeing is not investing in the young people of America through apprenticeships and cooperative programs to train the next generation of rivet bashers, wire splicers, tank sealers and tin benders as Airbus seems to be doing. Of course, Boeing ramped up in recent years which should have lowered their average age somewhat, but what it will be in the next downturn will be something to take seriously along with the Geritol and walkers they'll be handing out to the workers who survive. For that I must say (unhappily) shame on Boeing and viva Airbus.

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