How high can Idaho go with its aerospace industry?

Sharon Fisher//June 5, 2019

How high can Idaho go with its aerospace industry?

Sharon Fisher//June 5, 2019

photo of i90 aerospace conference
High-school students practice flying a drone, safely caged, at the I-90 Corridor Aerospace Conference and Expo. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

COEUR D’ALENE – Idaho isn’t typically thought of as an aerospace hub, but the annual I-90 Aerospace Corridor Conference and Expo featured plenty of Idaho presence, ranging from individual vendors to a speaker postulating Mars colonies.

Originally, Idaho and Washington had separate aerospace industry associations and conferences, but four years ago, the organizations suggested working together, said Gynii Gilliam, president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corporation.

That first year, the conference drew 89 attendees, and organizers were careful when scheduling the speakers – three from Idaho and three from Washington.

“We wanted to make sure the balance was there,” Gilliam said.

Now, it’s less of an issue, and the organizations are at a point where they say, “What difference does it make where they’re from?” Gilliam said.

The combined conference also had more clout and could convince people like the vice president of small business sales at Boeing to attend, Gilliam said.

“There’s a percentage of their sales they want to give to the small supply chain, and this is a big part all the way from Montana to Seattle,” she said.

About one-third of the exhibitors at the recent conference were Idaho companies, as well as a number of the speakers, including all three members of an additive manufacturing panel and two out of three members of an unmanned aerial vehicle panel.

Idaho has the potential to be a player in the aerospace industry, said J.C. Hall, board member and past chair of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA). The organization, based in Redmond, Washington, holds its own annual aerospace conference with more than 600 attendees and a focus on “B-to-B” – business-to-business – meetings where companies can look for partners, suppliers and customers, he said.

“The West Coast I-5 corridor is getting very expensive,” Hall said, and consequently a number of companies are moving eastward. “I don’t see any reason why Idaho can’t be part of it.”

The aerospace industry in North Idaho has become an employer of choice because it is higher paying than many other fields in Idaho, Gilliam said. At the same time, the cost of operations is much lower than those in Seattle and other coastal areas, she said. Airlines want lighter, more fuel-efficient planes but can only pay so much for them under pricing pressures from consumers, so finding a place to build parts cheaper helps keep costs down.

“Nobody wants to pay more because we don’t want to pay more for flights,” she said. “You have to push that all the way down the supply chain.”

Idaho is competing with states in the southeast U.S. that are investing money to attract the aerospace industry and courting companies at conventions nationwide , Hall warned. In addition, some states have three- to four-month aerospace training programs for potential employees, offering companies a ready-made workforce.

While Idaho does fund some aerospace companies to attend international aerospace trade shows, Hall said he doesn’t see the state funding training programs. North Idaho College does offer two-year programs in aviation maintenance and aerospace advanced manufacturing at its Aerospace Center in Hayden. Students in the latter program can also apply for a share of a $100,000 Metallica Scholars Initiative grant – funded by the band – to support career and technical education.

The school also partners with North Idaho companies that have a vested interest in gaining trained employees, such as ATC Composites in Post Falls, which makes 150 non-flight composite airplane parts, and Unitech Aerospace in Hayden, which makes a composite leading edge for the Boeing 777, Gilliam said.

“NIC is good at partnering,” she said. “We just need more bodies.”