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Originally published April 15, 2014 at 9:09 PM | Page modified April 16, 2014 at 6:07 AM

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Boeing managers say transfer of engineer jobs damaging talent, morale

Company documents reveal that Boeing’s plan to transfer 1,000 technology research jobs out of Washington state has caused widespread internal dissent and confusion. Some top engineers are leaving to work elsewhere.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Managers describe employee views
in official notes from recent meetings:

It's not a transfer to new locations, but wholesale abandonment of existing expertise ...”

Almost on a daily basis, we continue to see morale erode away.”
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I am nothing but a young machinist at the company, yet I can't help but feel for the engineers affected by this. I have... MORE
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Boeing’s December disclosure that it will transfer about 1,000 research engineering jobs out of Washington state has sown widespread internal dissent, distrust and confusion, according to internal employee feedback gathered by company managers.

The major realignment of Boeing Research & Technology (BR&T) has prompted those managers to warn that Boeing could lose top talent as both veteran and early-career engineers, some with security clearances for defense work, scramble to hunt for jobs elsewhere.

Meanwhile, managers within the Commercial Airplanes division — who depend upon technical support from BR&T engineering labs — are “telling their executives how this repositioning is going to be disastrous,” according to one document.

In a weekly series of internal meetings since the beginning of the year, Boeing’s leadership has been gathering feedback from about 50 BR&T ground-level managers on how the “repositioning” is going.

The official summary notes from those meetings, reviewed by The Seattle Times, show the feedback is unrelentingly negative.

“Employees feel betrayed, upset,” said one manager in a January meeting.

“Almost on a daily basis, we continue to see morale erode away,” said another in February.

“More and more negativity — people out looking for jobs,” reported one Flight and Systems Technologies sub-unit manager in March. “Negativity is spreading throughout the team — numerous people — not just a few.”

Boeing spokesman Tom Koehler said the notes are from meetings intended to provide constructive feedback.

“Our leadership team welcomes it, because it is candid, it’s unvarnished,” said Koehler. “We appreciate the active dialogue.

“We know that these changes are not easy,” he added. “But we believe they are necessary to enhance Boeing’s ability to provide effective and efficient technology solutions.”

Ray Goforth, executive director of Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said the documents show BR&T’s leadership is struggling to convince employees that Boeing has a sound business case for moving the work.

“According to the company’s own documents, no one in the workforce, management or labor, is believing what they are being told,” said Goforth. “And it seems to be having a very detrimental effect upon the company.”

Shock and disbelief

The transfer of the BR&T jobs is just one in a series of moves of Boeing engineering work from the Puget Sound area.

A year ago, Boeing announced it was moving 1,500 IT jobs to St. Louis and North Charleston, S.C.

This month, it said it will shift 1,000 engineering jobs supporting in-service airplanes to California by the end of 2015, after two similar shifts to California last summer that totaled 675 jobs.

BR&T is Boeing’s advanced central research-and-development unit, with more than half its 4,000 engineers and technical staff based in the Puget Sound region.

Providing support to Boeing’s commercial, military and space units, BR&T engineers run labs that test loads on airplane parts or the performance of electronic systems. They also research breakthrough technologies for the creation of new products.

In a December webcast, management told employees that about 1,000 jobs — roughly half the BR&T jobs here — will be moved by the end of 2015 to new technology research centers in Huntsville, Ala.; St. Louis and North Charleston, S.C.

Most of the local staff whose jobs will move are not expected to be offered positions at the new centers, where jobs are being reposted at lower-paid grade levels.

Soon after Boeing announced the plan, one manager at a Jan. 6 meeting listed the emotions shown by employees as “shock, disbelief, confusion, frustration, disappointment.”

The BR&T staff were not given any specifics in December as to who would go and who would stay. Four months later, they know little more.

The company said last month it will offer voluntary buyouts with up to 26 weeks of pay for some employees, but more details will not be available until May.

BR&T Vice President Greg Hyslop has provided only a high-level explanation of the strategy.

The reorg will “better meet the needs of our Commercial Airplanes and Defense, Space & Security business units, as well as our government R&D customers,” Hyslop told employees in December. “We are enhancing our ability to provide effective, efficient and innovative technology solutions.”

He repeated such abstractions in local employee meetings in January and March. But the feedback documented by managers shows that the lack of additional detail on what will happen to individual employees created frustration, and that engineers weren’t buying the stated reasons for the move.

“Most people I talked to said it was a waste of time to go over the Hyslop charts again because they don’t clearly state the business case,” reported one person in a February meeting. “What management is saying are the reasons is actually insulting to our intelligence. We are smart and the reasons don’t make sense.”

In this meeting, one manager said critical remarks made at a local supplier conference earlier that month by noted aviation-industry analyst Richard Aboulafia were “resonating with people” and conveyed how they felt about the BR&T change.

Aboulafia had said Boeing’s hardball treatment of the Machinists during the 777X negotiations “reeks of some sort of psychological exercise rather than an economically driven process.”

Loss of talent

When Boeing announced the BR&T shift, it said there would be no detrimental effect on its commercial-airplanes and defense units.

But the meeting notes show that questioning of the rationale for the move grew as engineers learned that Boeing Commercial Airplanes was worried about the “negative impacts” on its business if the research unit lost too many experienced employees.

The internal notes suggest that possibility is real.

“Some A-players are actively looking for jobs or are being contacted by third parties,” state the notes from a January meeting.

Later that month, one manager warned that “we will lose employees with Secret to Top Secret clearances. How do we transfer the work if we don’t have new people with the proper clearances?”

In February, the worry over the loss of talented engineers continued.

“Seeing more early career employees leaving Boeing. ... Some of the recent hires are very concerned about their job. About 80 percent of them are actively looking and several have already changed jobs,” read the notes from one meeting.

“Many of our key, senior employees also feel at risk even though they may not be,” the notes add.

“Top talent continues to leave,” reads a report later that month.

Boeing’s Koehler acknowledged that losing experienced people is a concern, but said, “We are transitioning carefully so that we minimize the impact of knowledge loss.”

He said BR&T staff who directly support the manufacturing of today’s jets won’t be asked to move, so “we’ll be able to maintain” the services offered to the Commercial Airplanes group.

Disillusionment

Employees cited in the feedback meetings expressed concerns that those high standards can’t be maintained.

In one February meeting, according to the notes, Pat Stokes, who manages strategy and integration at BR&T, shared an email from a Seattle employee who commented that the movement of work out of the region is “not a transfer to new locations, but wholesale abandonment of existing expertise.”

SPEEA’s Goforth said that while all this negative feedback documented by management is specific to the BR&T unit, similar feelings are being expressed in the other Boeing engineering groups hit by work transfers.

Last week’s announcement that Boeing will transfer 1,000 more engineering jobs to California from the group that provides technical support to airlines “is being greeted by complete dismissal and outrage in the workforce,” he said.

“The utter humiliation of laying everyone off and telling them they are welcome to reapply for their existing jobs in a new location has struck everyone as a nasty corporate practice,” Goforth said.

The disillusionment with management’s strategy seems to have spread beyond those whose jobs are moving.

In the notes from a BR&T feedback meeting in February, one manager summarized the feeling among some luckier engineers who are likely to stay in the Puget Sound region as part of the much smaller core team.

“Why should I work hard?” one such engineer is cited as asking. “The capabilities we are losing will cause a downward trend in company success. Why would I want to build my career here?”

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



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