Boeing Steadily Rehiring Laid-Off Workers

Though the hiring pace hasn't approached the frenzy it did in the past industry up cycles, the company's unions are pleased the company has made a dramatic turnaround.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, devastated the airline industry, the news of huge monthly layoffs at The Boeing Co. in the Puget Sound area became monthly headlines.

When the company was done paring its payrolls in mid-2004, its Washington work force had shrunk by more than 27,000 workers.

While that story of job losses and economic hardships was well reported, the story of what's happened with Boeing employment since the work force hit its low point of 52,763 in June 2004 has gone almost without notice.

And those changes have been significant. Consider the numbers:

* 67,601. That's the number of Boeing employees in Washington at the end of October this year, the last month for which figures are available.

* 14,838. That's the number of jobs the company has added to its payrolls since June 2004.

* 4,759. That's the number of people Boeing has hired between the end of January this year and the end of October.

* 724. That's the number of workers Boeing hired in October.

* 59. That's the number of union machinists the company hired during the short Thanksgiving workweek alone.

* 20 to 40. That's the number of union technical workers and engineers the company has added to its Puget Sound-area payrolls every two weeks recently.

* 0. That's the number of laid-off union machinists in many skill classifications remaining on the company's recall list.

In nearly any other industry, in nearly any other part of the country, one company's hiring of nearly 15,000 additional workers would be cause of jubilation.

In Jacksonville, Fla. this week, for instance, the announcement that Boeing and its partners had selected an old Navy base as a prospective site for assembly of a new small military transport aircraft created big news. The plant, if the Air Force awards the contract to Boeing, will hire between 200 to 400 workers.

But in the Puget Sound area, huge payroll head-count fluctuations are considered just another part of life in an industry whose pulse quickens and slows dramatically in sync with that of the transportation business.

Boeing's own rhetoric reflects that reality.

"We've been adding to the head count at a very measured rate," said Peter Conte, a spokesman for the company's biggest Seattle-based division, the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group.

Boeing is proud of its new hiring discipline. In past upturns in the aircraft acquisition cycle, the company's hiring pace has been far greater. During the last big employment upturn in the late '90s, Boeing was hiring at nearly twice the pace it is now.

For instance, during the three-month period between Aug. 1, 1997, and Nov. 1, 1997, the company hired 4,276 workers in Washington. That's an average of 1,425 workers a month.

Boeing learned the hard way that adding so many employees so fast was not the cure for failing to meet its production goals.

In an unpleasant episode that cost the head of the commercial airplane division his job, the company was forced to halt production to let suppliers catch up with the accelerated production and retrofit aircraft with missing parts after they had exited the production line.

Now, despite unprecedented demand for its aircraft (the company won a record 1,026 orders last year), Boeing has limited the increases in its production pace - and hiring - to those it's sure it can manage.

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