China expands aviation work

Zou Jian is on her way to achieving the American dream -- except that it's happening near the Strait of Taiwan. The 29-year-old works as a structural engineer, converting 747s from passenger jets to freighters for a growing company, Taikoo (Xiamen...


Zou Jian is on her way to achieving the American dream -- except that it's happening near the Strait of Taiwan.

The 29-year-old works as a structural engineer, converting 747s from passenger jets to freighters for a growing company, Taikoo (Xiamen) Aircraft Engineering Co., better-known as TAECO.

She makes about $500 a month -- less than one-tenth what a Wichita engineer makes. She lives in a 600-square-foot apartment provided by the company with one bedroom, a small stove and a TV set.

From Xiamen, a city of palm trees, a large university and a tourist haven known as "music island," she works with other engineers based in Hong Kong, Japan and Seattle.

She spent one month in Wichita in 2000, learning her job from Kansans.

One year later, Boeing announced it was closing its commercial modification center in Wichita, saying there wasn't enough freighter conversion work for it to continue. The center, which had employed 1,000, closed the next year.

Xiamen was one of several sites that took on additional Boeing modification work afterward. Boeing notes that because TAECO works on a different type of 747, no work was directly transferred from Wichita to Xiamen.

TAECO continues to expand and develop. Today, it opened a new hangar and celebrated its first modified 747-400 Boeing converted freighter, completing work similar to what used to be done in Wichita on other types of 747s.

The freighter is the first of six ordered by a Hong Kong airline. With 2,800 employees, TAECO can handle twice as many aircraft for maintenance and modification as it could four years ago.

Zou sees her company's growth as an opportunity to better her life.

Boeing and Airbus see China's growth as an opportunity to sell hundreds of planes over the next 20 years, generating work that could go to Wichita as well as to China.

But China's development worries Americans who fear the U.S. is losing good jobs and know-how overseas. They want to stem that tide, if not reverse it.

If that doesn't happen, Wichita and America will face tough times as China rises, said Bob Wood, a 20-year Cessna worker turned Machinists' union representative.

"Aerospace is the last great American industry," he said. "When we outsource to other countries, we're killing ourselves nationally."

Every country's strength

Andy Wei spent 18 years in the People's Liberation Army Air Force. He now heads the Beijing office of Goodrich, which works on Boeing and Airbus products in China. He said Chinese workers provide great opportunities for Western companies, and that the best way to build an aircraft that benefits the world is to let every country play to its strengths.

China has less expensive labor -- less than $1 an hour for a line worker in Xian, though Wei said that with subsidized housing, medical and other benefits, compensation rises to $4 to $7 an hour.

America has more advanced technology and better-skilled workers to use it, Wei said. Let them prosper together.

"China doesn't want to compete with America," he said. "We want everyone to benefit."

It's not that simple, said L. Josh Bivens, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-supported economic think tank in Washington, D.C.

Even if outsourcing advocates are right in that greater job movement creates more global wealth, it also unfairly creates winners and losers, he said. Investors get richer and working-class Americans grow poorer when blue-collar jobs disappear and remaining jobs become less secure, he continued.

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