Learning the drill

Boeing instructor John Clem explains Monday how the 787 Section 47 Upper Lobe Training Simulator will be used by students at the Boeing Training Center.

Brad Nettles

Power tools and teaching diagrams at Boeing Co.'s state-funded training facility in North Charleston sit in the shadow of two giant, thin arcs -- the cross section of a 787 Dreamliner jet.

The composite half-circles will help future Boeing employees get used to their new jobs, where reporting to work means descending into a dark, hollow tube to drill holes and seal fasteners. A training video showed some employees crawling through oval passenger windows to get to their work spaces.

"Make 'em work upside down," said Jeff Stone, director of training and employee development for Boeing. "Make them walk into an airplane with tools and (debris collection) bags, and then walk out at the end of the day."

Company officials and state program directors showed off the aerospace giant's new training space Monday at Trident Technical College's main campus on Rivers Avenue.

The facility has a smattering of teaching stations throughout the 22,000-square-foot building, which formerly was used by Robert Bosch, DuPont and other manufacturers under similar state training programs.

The program has graduated 1,700 Boeing workers, and the company's new 787 assembly line, scheduled to open next year at Charleston International Airport, will employ nearly 4,000. It's unclear how much training activity will occur at the center during the next few months.

State training officials stopped taking job applications on Boeing's behalf in January, and they have 1,315 applicants who already have qualified for the training but haven't started the program. Many of them won't be hired by Boeing before the end of the year, Stone said.

The training-schedule slowdown also caused state officials to back out of a deal with the city of North Charleston, which offered to lease to the company the 56,000-square-foot former city hall building on Lacross Road. The state had planned to use the building to recruit and train Boeing employees, but officials said they don't need the extra space anymore.

The training program does not expect to solicit more applicants until early next year.

"We don't want to create false hope," said Jim Maxon, the Boeing project director for ReadySC, a division of the S.C. Technical College System.

Meanwhile, the local head count at Boeing's two existing 787 fuselage plants near the airport has surged, increasing from about 2,200 workers last summer to 3,000 as the company plants ramp up to a quicker production rate.

Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger wouldn't say whether the new workers were hired locally or brought in from elsewhere. Stone said the company is trying to maintain a balance between experienced workers and fresh hires.

Regardless, the state training center is ready to accommodate new workers for their typical eight-week training program and subsequent certification classes.

On Monday, a round of instructors explained the ins and outs of aircraft manufacturing, from how to properly drill fasteners into composite plates to repacking tools into pre-assembled kits to ensure that nothing is left behind. Anytime a tool or a piece of equipment disappears in an aircraft plant it is considered a serious matter, instructor Tony Walters said.

"It could bring an aircraft down," he said.

One station will show workers how to squeeze sealants between metal pieces, cutting back on long-term wear and protecting against cabin pressure drops. The trick for employees, instructor Greg Bartle said, is to figure out how little of the product to use.

"Every bit they put on, it adds weight," he said.

The state program, which is projected to cost $33 million during the next 15 years, pays for a worker's training costs, including instruction time and tools. Boeing pays each trainee's wages.

Officials said the training program helped seal the deal for landing the company's second 787 assembly line. The other is near Seattle. While searching for plant sites, Boeing told state officials that it was worried about finding enough skilled workers in the Lowcountry, which doesn't have a long-standing aviation manufacturing presence.