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Military plays important role in Washington economy

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Airplanes, apples, coffee and software.

Many of Washington state’s biggest industries and employers are well known throughout the country and even the world.

But one of the state’s biggest economic drivers is sometimes overlooked here at home: the military.

As Congress and military leaders consider downsizing military bases throughout the country, some Washington state leaders are doing what they can to raise awareness about the impact of the military on the state economy.

The Association of Washington Business is participating in the effort. Rich Hadley, president emeritus of Greater Spokane Incorporated, represents AWB on the Washington Military Alliance, an advisory group made up of major business and trade organizations with ties to the defense industry.

The group was initially formed under Gov. Chris Gregoire in response to the government’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission and reestablished under Gov. Jay Inslee as a formal advisory body after the U.S. Department of Defense proposed military force reductions.

Over the next two years, the Army plans to reduce the number of active-duty soldiers by 40,000 nationwide, down from its current number of 490,000. JBLM will lose about 1,250 soldiers, plus an unspecified number of civilian workers.

That’s a smaller cut than local officials initially feared, but still worrisome to a state that benefits greatly from the military, both in terms of dollars and in other less tangible ways.

For those who live in or around Spokane, home to Fairchild Air Force Base, or regularly drive Interstate 5 between Olympia and Tacoma — with multiple exits to Joint Base Lewis-McChord — the military’s impact on our economy may seem apparent.

But the numbers might come as a surprise even for those who understand the military is important to Washington’s economy.

Washington is home to six major military installations with a combined economic impact of $13 billion in spending contracts and payroll. They include JBLM, Naval Base Kitsap, Naval Air Station Whidbey, Naval Station Everett, Fairchild Air Force Base and the Washington National Guard’s Camp Murray.

Some 1,900 companies do business with the Department of Defense, employing 112,000 people in 35 of Washington’s 39 counties. Some of the companies are well-known, but hundreds of small businesses benefit, too. Washington ranks in the top 10 states for military spending and sixth in the country for military population.

With numbers like that, it makes sense for business leaders to pay attention to what’s going on with the military.

But the military is important in less obvious ways, too. One of the biggest ways is by giving employers access to former military members who leave the service and enter the workforce. These people are highly skilled and have a great work ethic — exactly what employers need during a time when manufacturers and other employers are struggling to find qualified workers.

All of this means that business leaders need to become more aware of the statewide impact the military has on Washington’s economy. It plays a vital role in the health of our communities, and it can be a fantastic resource for employers in need of skilled, professional employees.

Washington is fortunate to be home to some great companies that sell things like airplanes, apples, coffee and software.

But we’re just as fortunate to be home for so many of our nation’s brave military service members and their families.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturing association.