When Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner recently announced his decision to retire at the end of next year it was more than just a well-earned and significant milestone, it was another step in a historic career for the highly respected Puget Sound born-and-raised leader. A graduate of Highline Schools in Burien, Ray went to work on the Boeing factory floor. Along the way he completed his education, learned nearly every role in the company and eventually worked his way up to CEO. His hard work and talent, combined with the right opportunities were the ingredients of his success.
Fortunately, Ray will continue to guide Boeing as a company vice chairman for an additional year and he undoubtedly will be involved as ever in both the company he loves and the community he serves. He is retiring at a time of great change in our state and in our country. Two generations ago, a graduate could take their high school diploma and find good, high-paying work at local companies. But throughout America, and particularly in Washington state, the economy is changing dramatically. More than ever, entry level employees today need college degrees and workforce training in advanced manufacturing, mechatronics, robotics and other skills to be competitive in the marketplace.
In part because of that, Challenge Seattle, co-chaired by Ray, has asked the business community to step up and play a role in ensuring our state’s economic future. We seek to ensure that our region thrives and remains globally competitive by creating more middle-wage jobs, tackling our transportation infrastructure, diversifying our business base and creating opportunities for our local graduates.
As part of that effort, both at Boeing and through Challenge Seattle, Ray has forged a path to better connect our children to career opportunities and to ensure our schools are providing them the skills they will need to compete for good paying jobs. Opportunities to work on the leading edge of technology abound in our region, but many students will not pursue the education needed for these jobs. With a growing skills gap, retiring workforces and limited access to STEM learning, our children’s future in these fields is being diminished.
In fact, while Washington state leads in creating STEM jobs, not enough of the children in our state are receiving the tools they need to be ready to take those jobs when they finish their academic careers. We must prepare our children for these jobs or we risk relying on talent from outside to fill those roles. To keep our talent pipeline flowing, it is crucial that the public and private sectors work together in developing curricula, supporting our educational system and understanding emerging needs in a rapidly changing world. Groups like Challenge Seattle aim to ensure that happens and it is in no small part due to Ray’s leadership on the issue that we are making progress.
He knows, more than most, the value of a degree, skills training and career advancement. Indeed, he has seen it in his own career and has seen how our local companies must help prepare the workforces of tomorrow while ensuring the success of today. While Ray’s decision to enjoy his much earned retirement is a loss to Boeing and the region, I can say with confidence that both are better places because of his tireless and passionate leadership over the last 40 years.
Just a few months ago, Ray was visiting classrooms speaking to groups of students and telling his personal story. He was engaging them, one at a time, to stay in school, earn their certification, or associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and plan on a job in our region. I am confident that his peers across the Puget Sound will continue their leadership and that the next round of leaders, like Ray, will dedicate their time and wisdom to creating a better future.
Chris Gregoire was the 22nd governor of the state of Washington and is currently the CEO of Challenge Seattle.