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Panel discusses county's high-tech manufacturing needs

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By Michelle Dunlop
Herald Writer
Published: Monday, January 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
EVERETT -- Will Snohomish County become the Silicon Valley of advanced technology and manufacturing?
That depends on how the region leverages the advantages it already has, thanks largely to the area's aerospace industry, said participants in a Jan. 12 discussion organized by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.
"If we do have the edge we think we have, what are we going to do with it?" Bob Drewel, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, said to the more than 100 people who attended the event.
Representatives from the region's business, government and education organizations weighed in on the future of advanced technology and manufacturing in Snohomish County.
Employers including Snohomish County Public Utility District and Esterline Control Systems see a lot of potential on the horizon, not only for their own organizations but for the region. Capitalizing on those opportunities, however, depends largely on having the right education and training in place.
Steve Klein, general manager of the Snohomish County PUD, sees a fairly dramatic change in job requirements for utility workers as smart-grid technology is implemented.
"Mechanical processes are being turned into digital processes," Klein said.
The change will create a need for information technology-savvy workers. But it also creates an opportunity for companies and workers to manufacture the physical equipment that will be needed for the smart grid, he said.
Cyndi Bajema, vice president of Esterline Control Systems, noted that her company not only needs engineers who can help develop enhanced night vision technology for military customers but also needs skilled workers.
"It's difficult to find toolmakers," she said.
A "master" toolmaker needs about 10 years of experience -- something that's hard to find. Esterline, and its Everett-based subsidiary Korry, also has a tough time finding workers with machining skills, Bajema said. She suspects that's because of a scaling back of shop courses being offered in area high schools.
Local school districts and higher-education institutions have faced shrinking budgets over the last three years -- cutbacks that affect their abilities to respond to calls for more math, engineering and shop courses. However, institutes like Everett Community College and Washington State University are working together to fill some of that need. WSU will begin offering upper-level engineering courses in Everett this fall.
"We want to be here. We want to be your partner," said Anson Fatland, associate director for economic development at WSU.
Fatland, as well as David Beyer, president of Everett Community College, expressed concern that the Legislature will again slash funding for education this year. And Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said he believes there will be an "assault on local revenue" in this session that also will affect the way local schools are funded.
Drewel and Troy McClelland, president of Economic Alliance Snohomish County, suggested people remind their state legislators about education and training needs.
"We can not afford to be complacent," McClelland said. "We have a base -- the intellectual property of the base is what can grow."
Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454, mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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