Book shows Boeing employees struggling with a changing culture

SEATTLE — The old heritage Boeing Co. is dead, and Seattle-area employees are struggling to come to terms with the colder corporation in its place, according to candid interviews in a new book.

“Emerging from Turbulence: Boeing and Stories of the American Workplace Today” explores the attitudes of Boeing veterans, for whom the merger with McDonnell Douglas remains a raw wound, and younger employees who know only the current reality.

The book, by University of Puget Sound professors Leon Grunberg and Sarah Moore, maps in detail how things have changed at Boeing and what it’s like to work there today.

In hours-long interviews, 36 Boeing employees — engineers, machinists, technical and business staff, each granted anonymity in order to speak freely — provided frank, emotional, first-person accounts of their work lives.

One 48-year-old machinist with 25 years at Boeing sounds like a dream employee. A driven, high-end machinist collaborating with engineers inside the Seattle development center, he loves his work.

“Some people actually enjoy building stuff and making stuff,” he said. “You’ve got to experience every single bit of your life, every moment you can, and enjoy it.”

Yet even he found his faith dented by Boeing’s outsourcing of skilled work and its shortchanging of the workforce.

“The company doesn’t realize just how important it is having people that want to do something … be engaged employees,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

The book features a series of interviews exploring in depth the engagement of three cohorts of Boeing workers: those recently retired; veterans still working there; and relatively new hires.

The 36 selected for publication were drawn from 80 in-person interviews. Those in turn were drawn mostly from employees who participated in an earlier 10-year survey of worker attitudes that in 2010 produced the book “Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers.”

This new book serves as an in-their-own-words sequel that brings us up to date, with the latest interviews completed in 2014.

Authors Grunberg and Moore lay out the broader economic factors beyond the 1997 McDonnell Douglas merger that have played a role in the changes at Boeing.

They suggest that the dramatic shift in the jetmaker’s corporate culture — a focus on cost-cutting and bottom-line profits, a hard line with unions, outsourcing of work, and a steely approach to layoffs and work transfers — reflects parallel changes across corporate America that have deeply affected how all workers think about their jobs.

Among Boeing employees, the retirees interviewed have the rosiest memories of their work lives. They are uniformly proud of having worked for Boeing.

Yet they also have an unblinkered view that the merger changed everything fast.

A retired 30-year employee, a business-operations consultant, unsentimentally describes Boeing’s management structure at the time of the merger as “collegial, bloated, flaccid.”

“When the McDonnell Douglas guys came in, they just went through them like a knife through butter,” he said. “Just cut their throats, hung them out to dry.”

Older workers who were still at the company when interviewed were very critical of company actions and had clearly grown more distant and emotionally detached from Boeing.

One 47-year-old, with two decades at Boeing, said working on the 787 Dreamliner “wasted seven years of my life.”

He complained of having to repeatedly fix and rework engineering initially done in Boeing’s Moscow design center.

“I used to be a Boeing engineer. Now I’m an engineer who works at Boeing,” he said.

The newer hires display generally more positive attitudes, shaped by “a youthful mind-set” and the absence of nostalgia for a vanished past.

They appreciate that Boeing provides great pay and benefits compared to what their friends get working elsewhere and they tend to accept that cost-cutting is necessary.

A mechanic, 30, said, “I have never been so grateful to work for a company.”

“I wish we still had our pension,” he added, but “it’s still a pretty good deal.”

Yet despite this relative satisfaction with their jobs, often the younger employees and particularly young engineers express no great loyalty to Boeing or admiration for the management structure they encounter.

Some complain of a “bland corporate environment” producing work lives that are “uninteresting, inefficient and slow.”

One 30-year-old stress engineer says he’s looking for another job, fed up with the low morale around him and the low expectations.

Grunberg and Moore write that they “detect a gradual but unmistakable turn away from the company across time and across generations.”

Retirees and long-serving current employees are “deeply emotionally connected to Boeing,” with feelings that include both nostalgia for the workplace of their past and “powerful criticism of the postmerger business philosophy.”

The new cohort of younger employees has “a thinner and more instrumental attachment” to Boeing, they write.

Boeing executives eager to inspire an engaged workforce might want to set aside their management books to study closely this account of what their employees think and feel.

(c)2015 The Seattle Times

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