Manufacturing engineers on the 787 Dreamliner program Wednesday became the latest group at Boeing to hear bad news of imminent downsizing.
It came early in the morning, in an email from a senior manager that thanked them for saving the troubled jet program, then announced layoffs are coming.
Boeing manager Kevin Ettwein sent the note, a copy of which was obtained by The Seattle Times.
The manufacturing engineers (MEs) are both degreed engineers and non-degreed technical staff who develop and maintain manufacturing plans for the jet-assembly lines.
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Hundreds of these employees on each jet program act as a critical link between the engineers who design the jets and the mechanics who build them.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said the internal email is “incomplete and premature” and “the specifics around any future workforce plans for Manufacturing Engineering are not yet final.” He declined to say how many MEs there are for the 787.
Ettwein’s note opened with a flattering assertion. He told the 787 MEs that they had saved the program by getting it through the troubled years of initial production.
That’s the period, roughly 2007 through 2011, when Boeing’s supplier partners delivered pieces to Everett that were unfinished, completely snarling final assembly.
“Occasionally I am asked why there are so many MEs on the 787 Program,” Ettwein wrote. “Rather than go through the history of the 787 and the impacts of some poor decisions, I usually answer with conviction, Because that is how many the Program needed to save it.”
When airplane design changes are made, it’s the MEs who must adjust the production process to incorporate the new design. On the 787 there were many, from the strengthening of the wing-to-body join to the latest battery issue.
Ettwein said the team “spent countless hours helping Boeing/Partner/and Supplier Mechanics deal with change after change and to understand the build plan, processes, and specifications.”
“Our team has largely recovered a program that had little or no plan for Manufacturing Engineering,” Ettwein wrote, adding the team “was key to the overall progression of the Program.”
Now the bad news
After that generous tribute, Ettwein’s second paragraph got straight to the real news:
“While we are by no means out of the woods as a Program, this year we have decided to start downsizing our team to become proportionate to the ME presence on other programs,” Ettwein wrote. “I know many of you have been talking to your managers about our staffing reductions and they should be telling you if you are ‘at risk’ of receiving a WARN (layoff notice).”
Boeing will help those who will be laid off, including looking for open positions within the company and “planning résumé workshops and mock interviews, as well as potentially talking to some of our suppliers to see if they need help.”
“Please know that the ME leadership team does not take staffing reductions lightly,” he added. “We are committed to assisting those of you who are impacted in finding new opportunities.”
He then signed off with a flourish:
“ME Rocks because of you.
Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), which represents the manufacturing engineers, said he’s heard from members who reacted “with anger and dismay at the dismissiveness” of the message.
He summarized the note as “thank you very much, we don’t need you anymore.”
Reached by phone at work in Everett, Ettwein said, “We are getting healthier as a team” but declined to elaborate until he had checked with Boeing’s communications department on whether he was permitted to talk. He did not call back.
Instead, Birtel sent a statement saying, “It would be premature for us to discuss anything publicly before our internal work has been completed.”
“When our plans are finalized for the Manufacturing Engineering team, we will share the details of those plans, starting with our internal teams,” Birtel wrote.
This week, Boeing handed formal 60-day layoff warning notices to 939 production workers, members of the Machinists union.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said not all of those will be laid off. The company’s plan, he said, remains what was announced last month: layoffs of about 800 Machinists by the end of the year, with as many as 1,500 additional positions cut through attrition or transfers.
Boeing had said then that the production-worker downsizing was needed because final assembly of the two newest jets — the 747-8 jumbo jet and the 787 Dreamliner — has stabilized and so the assembly lines require fewer workers.
In addition, protracted post-assembly rework is winding down on early 747-8s and 787s that rolled out in need of modification.
The stabilization of 787 production would also explain why fewer 787 manufacturing engineers are needed.
With changes to the design now minimal, production should flow relatively smoothly, monitored by fewer MEs than in the past.
Other Boeing white-collar cuts are in the works.
Last month, Boeing confirmed that some work would shift from the Puget Sound region for various units, cutting hundreds of white-collar jobs here.
That work includes information-technology support, some of which will move to St. Louis and some to North Charleston, S.C.; pilot training, which will move by summer to Miami; and engineering support for customers flying out-of-production aircraft, which Boeing may move to Long Beach, Calif.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org