Joan Robinson-Berry of Boeing Sees Changes Coming to Aerospace

Richard Breen

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

When Joan Robinson-Berry looks into the future of aerospace, she sees an industry that’s going to grow from moving 3.5 billion passengers per year to one that carries 6 billion a generation from now. She says current infrastructure can’t handle that increase, and even if it could, there aren’t enough people qualified to fill the additional aerospace jobs that will be created.

Robinson-Berry, who is vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, expounded on current and future workforce needs as part of the University of South Carolina’s recent Economic Outlook Conference. Boeing currently employs approximately 6,800 workers in the Palmetto State.

“Some of the best and brightest minds in the industry are here,” she said. “I see some of the most innovative, talented workers.”

After 30 years in the industry, Robinson-Berry said the thing that keeps her up at night is the potential for a start-up company to disrupt her industry the way Airbnb and Tesla have disrupted the hotel and auto industries, respectively.

“We need a workforce that understands that and helps us stay focused,” she said. “We need to make sure we know where all the talent is – and it’s not just four-year-degree people.”

Robinson-Berry said she also sees a need for the industry to get away from a mindset of everyone leaving home to work at a 9-to-5 job for five days a week.

“We have to find a way to make our workforce more flexible,” she said.

That could mean enticing soon-to-retire baby boomers to stay on in part-time jobs. It also may include having talented minds split time between academia and industry.

“If we have a shortage of STEM talent,” she asked, “can we share that?”

Robinson-Berry said Boeing pays its workers an average salary of $70,000 per year and the North Charleston facility supports 300 related businesses. The S.C. Council on Competitiveness reports that the aerospace industry has grown to the point that it has created or supported 100,000 jobs statewide.

“What can we do to keep it going?” Robinson-Berry asked the audience at the USC event. “It starts with our education system.”

Robinson-Berry described a “cradle-to-career” mindset in which getting children off to a good start in their first 1,000 days of life will be crucial.

“If we don’t get that right, we have a lifetime of remediation,” she said. “We can teach coding the same way we teach ABCs.”

But workforce development isn’t just about technology.

“We can teach the technical skills, but we can’t teach ethical behavior,” Robinson-Berry said. “That starts at home.”

She said 41,000 new airplanes will be needed worldwide in the coming years. It’s already started, as her company recently made a deal to build 40 Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners for the Dubai-based Emirates airline. Those planes will be built in South Carolina, Robinson-Berry said.