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U.S. aerospace, aviation industries see threats in aging workforce

The winglet of a Boeing 737 jetliner is pictured during a tour of the Boeing 737 assembly plant in Renton, Washington February 4, 2014. REUT
The winglet of a Boeing 737 jetliner is pictured during a tour of the Boeing 737 assembly plant in Renton, Washington February 4, 2014. REUT

By Elvina Nawaguna

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. aerospace and aviation industry leaders warned lawmakers on Thursday that a coming wave of retirements in an aging workforce could hurt both sectors and create safety issues unless the government helps more young people qualify for those jobs.

Boeing Co, for instance, expects a large percentage of its U.S. workers to retire in a few years and does not see a ready pool of replacements, said Dennis Muilenburg, president and chief operating officer.

"If we look at the demographics of our workforce across Boeing and much of the aerospace industry, about 50 percent of our top engineers and mechanics will be eligible to retire over roughly the next five years," Muilenburg told lawmakers at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security.

The Senate panel met to consider what the government can do to maintain the lead positions of the U.S. aerospace and aviation industries as global competitors advance.

Boeing's main competitor is Europe-based Airbus Group.

Workforce development, regulatory issues and the need for more modern infrastructure were among the topics discussed.

The Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for the safety and regulation of U.S. civil aviation, also faces a staffing crisis, a labor official told lawmakers.

"One third of the (FAA) workforce, including controllers, inspectors (and) systems specialists are eligible to retire," said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department at AFL-CIO.

"This is unsustainable and must be addressed because we believe it's going to not only impact operations for the airline industry, but also the safety of the system as you see this brain-drain of high quality people retiring and we're not hiring and replacing them fast enough," Wytkind said.

Encouraging science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for U.S. children at an early age could help create a pipeline of qualified engineers, the officials said.

"We have about 4 million children entering kindergarten this year. At current rates, that would produce about 60,000 to 70,000 engineers at the end of college," Muilenburg said. "That's not even enough to satisfy the aerospace industry, let alone all sectors that need engineers."

The aviation industry wants to position for growth as the U.S. economy continues to recover and air travel picks up. The U.S. Transportation Department on Thursday reported a 6.1 percent rise in airline travel in 2013.

Separately, the FAA projected on Thursday that the total number of people flying on U.S. carriers will surge to 1.15 billion in 2034 from 745.5 million people in 2014.

Officials said the aviation and aerospace industries urgently need better technology and new highly skilled workers to meet this growing demand.

"We are seeing competitors move up behind us. You can hear the feet, you can feel the hot breaths," said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

(Editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Walsh)

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