Boeing’s Washington workforce is still larger than Microsoft’s and Amazon’s combined, and it occupies a unique role in the state’s economic history.
A common sight on a clear day in Seattle is a passenger plane ascending against the backdrop of Mount Rainier — two icons that define the Puget Sound region.
Boeing, more than any other company over the past century, has shaped and bolstered the Puget Sound economy by providing tens of thousands of jobs, helping mold the region’s business culture and putting Seattle on the map as a technology and export center.
“The prosperity we are experiencing now has been because of the foundation Boeing has laid over its history,” said Alex Pietsch, board president of the Washington Aerospace Partnership trade group and Gov. Jay Inslee’s former aerospace adviser. “William Boeing’s decision to put his airplane factory in our region might be the single most important decision to impact our region in the last 100 years.”
As it reaches its 100th anniversary on July 15, Boeing easily holds the title as the largest private employer in Washington. Even though its head count has edged down in recent years, nearly half Boeing’s global workforce is based in Washington: more than 77,000 workers, topping Amazon and Microsoft combined.
As state officials reported this spring that Boeing had saved $305 million in state taxes last year through Washington’s aerospace tax incentives, the company reported the other side of that coin: In 2015, it spent $13 billion in Washington on payroll, supplier purchases and capital investments.
But its economic impact stretches further, fueling an aerospace sector that in 2014 generated 93,400 direct jobs at Boeing and supplier companies, and an estimated $59.5 billion in gross revenues in the state, according to a study for the Washington Aerospace Partnership.
In 2015, Washington companies exported $51.1 billion in aircraft products, making up 59 percent of the state’s total export value.
Though the days of Boeing being the only big game in town are over, and the region’s economy has diversified significantly, its legacy would be difficult to match.
For most of the past 60 years, through ups and downs, Boeing has employed more than 40,000 people in the Puget Sound region. But its importance as an employer goes far beyond head count.
“It is still one of the few remaining places where those without a college education can provide a middle-class lifestyle for their families,” said Leon Grunberg, professor emeritus at the University of Puget Sound and a co-author of two book-length studies of Boeing and its workforce.
For decades, it seemed as if every local household had a family member, close friend or neighbor who worked at Boeing, from assembly workers to specialized engineers.
Good wages, even for production workers, meant that even the blue-collar employees could afford to send their kids to college or own a weekend home.
“Boeing employed people all up and down the economic spectrum: blue collar all the way to executives. Boeing pervaded every aspect of working life,” said Knute Berger, a local author and historian. “It was an enabler of a middle-class lifestyle in Seattle and became identified with what success looked like.”
Working at the company for many years forged tight bonds for many employees, Grunberg said.
“Many Boeing workers care deeply about Boeing,” he said. “They use family metaphors to describe the company. … Sometimes three generations of a family have worked at Boeing.”
Many workers also fall in love with producing airplanes, complex machines that safely carry millions of people around the world.
“The workforce itself still thinks there’s something magical about what they’re doing,” Grunberg said.
Boeing workers also formed strong unions as the company grew and evolved, setting high standards for working conditions for both blue-collar and white-collar workers, said Polly Myers, who teaches social sciences at the University of Washington and wrote the book, “Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing.”
Having a union for engineering workers is unusual in the American corporate world, where professional jobs are often not unionized, she said.
Boeing’s boom-and-bust cycles have carried the region along with them for much of its history.
It was a relatively small company during its first few decades, until World War II propelled its production lines to turn out military planes at a frenzied pace.
The wartime demand for labor brought an influx of workers, including thousands of African Americans from the South, to the Pacific Northwest’s defense factories. Boeing and the International Association of Machinists first admitted blacks into the company’s workforce in 1942, following an executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry.
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But not long after the war ended, so did Boeing’s boom, and thousands of people lost their jobs. The local workforce plunged from 44,754 in 1945 to 12,105 in 1946.
During the 1960s, Boeing emerged as a major producer of commercial passenger planes during the golden age of air travel. Airlines expanded rapidly, and Boeing again beefed up its workforce to meet the demand for faster transportation over longer distances.
But once that demand leveled off, and the federal government abandoned backing for Boeing’s supersonic transport plane, the company cut more than half its Puget Sound-area workforce. Employment plunged from a peak of 100,874 workers in 1967 to 38,069 in 1971, prompting two real-estate agents to put up a billboard that read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights.”
That downturn devastated the region. Especially hard hit was Renton, essentially a company town because of the Boeing plant there.
The company recovered in the decade that followed and brought its workforce above 80,000 by 1980, only to experience other steep drops in the early 1980s, mid-1990s and then after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Fluctuations in demand are a reality of the aviation business, said Dick Conway, a Puget Sound regional economist. Over Boeing’s history, the company boomed when the military or airlines needed planes, with large orders requiring production to ramp up quickly. But each boom eventually tapered off as demand was filled — or stopped abruptly due to external shocks.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, passenger travel plummeted and airlines stopped ordering new planes. Demand later picked up toward the end of the decade, just as the rest of the U.S. economy fell into the Great Recession. Boeing added to its head count even as other firms were slashing jobs, Conway said, which helped the region weather the recession.
“It’s not a failing of the company, it’s the way the economy expands,” Conway said. “In a capital-goods industry, Boeing has done amazingly well, and a lot of that has to do with its willingness to lay off people in difficult times.”
For decades, the company fostered a family mentality among its workforce, but that began to shift notably in the 1980s as a broader change was happening in corporate America, Myers said.
Companies that had once prioritized their relationships with employees began focusing on increasing shareholder value, she said. That applied to Boeing, especially after the merger with competitor McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
Executives at the company subsequently decided to move Boeing’s headquarters to Chicago in 2001 as a deliberate attempt to show it was truly a global player — not just a firm closely tied to Seattle.
That decision delivered a profound psychological blow to many workers and residents of the Puget Sound region, Myers said, even though the move involved only a small fraction of Boeing’s workforce.
“The move to Chicago signaled to employees, ‘We are no longer a family company. We’re not a family — we are a team,’ ” Myers said. Company President Harry Stonecipher, who came to Boeing from McDonnell Douglas after the merger, had made that attitude clear in a 1998 speech to the Seattle Rotary Club.
As the company moves jobs to other parts of the United States and sends work to be done in other countries such as China, people here increasingly wonder how long its outsized presence in the state will last or whether hefty tax breaks from the Legislature are justified.
But the company remains such a large player in Washington that keeping those high-skilled, good-paying jobs, especially in manufacturing, is a priority for many elected officials.
“The state tax breaks are not a handout. This isn’t money we have in the bank that we are giving to the company,” Pietsch said. “This is a little less money they are paying in taxes than they would theoretically have to pay. … This tax incentive was not as much about growing jobs as keeping the industry that we already have.”
The romanticized notions of Boeing as a family that produces state-of-the-art flying machines may have fallen by the wayside, Grunberg said, but that remains part of the company’s legacy.
“The Boeing of the future will be radically more global, less rooted to the Puget Sound, and will have a new generation of workers that are not as emotionally connected or don’t have the same expectation of long-term employment,” Grunberg said. “Change is inevitable, but we hope that Boeing doesn’t abandon everything that made it a special place to begin.”