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At the factory that builds the 737 Max, Boeing rethinks how it trains new hires

Boeing is changing how it trains new recruits at the factory near Seattle where it assembles the 737 Max, part of a broader effort to improve quality after a midair blowout. 737 Max aircraft are seen in various states of assembly at the Boeing factory in Renton, Wash., on Tuesday.
Jennifer Buchanan
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Pool photo by The Seattle Times
Boeing is changing how it trains new recruits at the factory near Seattle where it assembles the 737 Max, part of a broader effort to improve quality after a midair blowout. 737 Max aircraft are seen in various states of assembly at the Boeing factory in Renton, Wash., on Tuesday.

RENTON, Wash. — Boeing assembles the 737 in a massive factory here that can hold more than a dozen unfinished planes, with their shiny green fuselages lined up nose to tail.

But before Boeing’s new hires get to work on these jets, they spend a few months next door at Boeing’s training center, learning the basics.

“Everything has a name, everything has a measurement, everything has a place. And it's just mind-blowing, the details,” said Derrick Farmer, who is about two months into his training at Boeing.

Farmer worked as an aviation mechanic in the Army, helping to keep Boeing helicopters in the air, for nine years. Now that he’s learning how to build the planes, Farmer says the level of detail is a lot to take in — even for him.

“Every bolt, every washer, every rivet,” he said. “It all matters.”

Boeing has been on a hiring spree, adding thousands of new workers to make up for the experienced employees who left in droves during the COVID pandemic.

“Every bolt, every washer, every rivet. It all matters,” said Derrick Farmer, right, as he trains on electrical systems with Timothy Well at Boeing's Foundational Training Center on Tuesday.
Jennifer Buchanan / Pool photo by The Seattle Times
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Pool photo by The Seattle Times
“Every bolt, every washer, every rivet. It all matters,” said Derrick Farmer, right, as he trains on electrical systems with Timothy Well at Boeing's Foundational Training Center on Tuesday.

Now Boeing is changing the way it trains new recruits at the factory where it assembles the 737 Max, part of a broader effort to improve quality control after a door plug panel blew off a relatively new plane in midair. This week the company gave reporters a rare glimpse inside its 737 factory near Seattle — the same factory where a Boeing worker or workers failed to reinstall four key bolts that were supposed to hold that door plug in place.

“I am extremely confident that the actions that we took have ensured that every airplane leaving this factory is safe,” said Elizabeth Lund, Boeing’s senior vice president for quality. “I feel very confident that it will not happen again.”

Lund says Boeing has made a lot of changes since the door plug incident. The company has added new steps to make sure work is performed in the right sequence, and that it is documented correctly.

And Lund says Boeing is rethinking how the company trains new hires.

“It worked before when we didn’t have the high quantity of new people coming in,” she told reporters this week. But with so many new people coming on board, Lund says they weren’t getting as much on the job training from experienced employees.

“Having that person who is there with them, helping them do their job. That relationship wasn't as strong as it had previously been,” she said.

Boeing has responded by creating a formal mentoring program, Lund said. It’s added several additional weeks of foundational training, from a maximum of 12 weeks before to 14 now. And the company is revising its training materials to make them more hands-on.

Elizabeth Lund, senior vice president of quality at Boeing, speaks to gathered media on Tuesday in front of a slide detailing the door plug blow-out that occurred on Jan. 5, 2024, on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.
Jennifer Buchanan / Pool photo by The Seattle Times
/
Pool photo by The Seattle Times
Elizabeth Lund, senior vice president of quality at Boeing, speaks to gathered media on Tuesday in front of a slide detailing the door plug blow-out that occurred on Jan. 5, 2024, on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.

“We have definitely incorporated more repetition, a lot more hands-on repetition,” said Kayla Abusham, a trainer in the electrical department.

“It's a lot more complex,” Abusham said, forcing the trainees to focus on the details of how they log the work as they go, “just like how they would do on the floor.”

At another station in the training center, Zach Jackson shows reporters the proper way to drill holes in sheet metal. Jackson started working at Boeing in 1978. He left during the 1990s. And then decided to come back a few years ago, to help train the next generation.

“I love this place. That’s why I’m still here. I’m here to help,” Jackson said. “My son works here now. He never did want to work for Boeing, but I convinced him.”

How did Jackson persuade him?

“I showed him my paycheck,” he says with a laugh.

Boeing is not the only company in the aviation industry that’s lost a lot of experience on the shop floor. So has Spirit AeroSystems, a key supplier that builds the fuselage for the 737 in Wichita, Kan.

Boeing is in talks to buy most of Spirit, reacquiring the factory it sold off almost 20 years ago.

The two companies have already made some changes to cut down on the number of production errors before the fuselages arrive at Boeing’s factory.

Orange tape points to a slightly raised rivet near a mid-cabin door plug on a 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Wash., on Tuesday.
Jennifer Buchanan / Pool photo by The Seattle Times
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Pool photo by The Seattle Times
Orange tape points to a slightly raised rivet near a mid-cabin door plug on a 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Wash., on Tuesday.

“You can see right over the door here, there's a piece of orange tape,” said Katie Ringgold, the vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 737 program, and the head of the factory where the jets are assembled.

Ringgold points to a piece of tape marking one single rivet on the fuselage of a plane in production that’s sticking out too far from the skin. But overall, Ringgold says problems with new fuselages have dropped in recent months.

“So while still not perfect, we've seen a significant reduction in the defects found here that were caused by our supplier,” Ringgold said.

Federal regulators have limited Boeing’s production of the 737 to 38 jets per month, and Ringgold says the company is making even fewer than that.

“My focus is not rate. My focus is stabilizing this factory with the safety and quality changes that are paramount,” she said.

Eventually Boeing will have to speed up production if it’s going to satisfy the airlines that are eager for new planes, not to mention investors and analysts on Wall Street.

But for now the company’s leaders say their focus is on getting every bolt and rivet right.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Katie Ringgold, vice president and general manager of the 737 Program, speaks to gathered media at the Boeing 737 factory on Tuesday.
Jennifer Buchanan / Pool photo by The Seattle Times
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Pool photo by The Seattle Times
Katie Ringgold, vice president and general manager of the 737 Program, speaks to gathered media at the Boeing 737 factory on Tuesday.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.