Retirement ages are driving trained aviation mechanics out of a booming industry, leaving a projected 38,000 positions open for new hires every year, according to Boeing, the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners.
Alabama Aviation College in Ozark seeks to help fill that gap with advanced opportunities, short-term programs, low costs, and strong partnerships with area schools, governments, and businesses.
“Tying all this together, we are providing training for not only the region’s most critical needs, but also the nation,” Enterprise State Community College President Matt Rodgers said.
Nationally, aviation colleges are only producing about 10,000 aviation mechanics each year, creating a serious shortage that is expected to exacerbate over the next two decades.
A unit of ESCC, Ozark’s aviation college currently serves 100 dual-enrollment students from Wiregrass high schools and 250 post-secondary students.
“So obviously, that’s not enough to supply that 38,000 new jobs per year,” said Col. Stan Smith, director of Alabama’s aviation college. “But we’re always looking for new students. We’re also looking ahead to the future.”
Its flagship course remains its Airframe and Powerplant Mechanical program that produces aviation mechanics recruited heavily by employers.
“If someone wants a good paying job, they come here, they get the training, the education, the hands-on experience, the test with the FAA, and job opportunities are unlimited,” Smith said.
A two-year degree could gain a graduate access to work opportunities across the world, he added. And after a couple of years, one could earn around $72,000 a year – considerably higher than the U.S. median annual household income of $59,000.
However, ESCC’s Director of Workforce Development Ian Campbell said that they are challenged with how to make the field attractive for those coming into the labor force.
“It’s a cycle with engaging the new generation,” Ian Campbell said. “One of the ways that we’ve kind of found is pure communication and illustrating and demonstrating what it actually is…”
“Even when you throw the money thing in there, it doesn’t really resonate. So, what we’ve found is to allow the students being able to put their hands on some concrete equipment, see the facilities, and observe what’s actually going on – then, you tend to get a much better participation rate.”
Studies show that the younger generations want to find more meaning in their work than past generations have, and create more balance between work and personal life.
“I think this program is very marketable,” Campbell said. “It allows a lot of freedom for movement.”
Completing the program enables graduates to not only work on planes and aircraft, but also technology as varied as roller coasters to space shuttles. The college has graduates working at Disney and Virgin Galactic.
Recruiters are working fervently to attract students to aviation and bringing free college courses to high school students. Through workforce development funds, educators bring curriculum to Houston County/Dothan, Enterprise, Dale County/ Ozark, Troy, Geneva County, and Andalusia at no cost to students. They also provide free summer courses and night classes for secondary students.
Students can be halfway done with the degree program by the time they graduate high school, and there are no shortage of openings in the Southeast’s hub for aviation mechanics.
Stephen Schmidt, public relations director, said part of the difficulty has been breaking the mentality of Gen Z that they must attend a four-year university for academic pursuits to be successful in today’s world.
“What we’re trying to teach the superintendents, counselors, principals – everybody — is not only can you go to a two-year program here, but you actually can be more successful in the job market,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s the big push for us, is that we want student success high – with affordability.”
At the heart of the Wiregrass, the college is placed at the doorsteps of the Southeast Alabama’s largest single-location employer, M1 Support Services at Fort Rucker. With more than 3,000 employees, the aviation maintenance company provides service to any type of aircraft and often calls the aviation college when it has openings. It is also positioned down the road from Commercial Jet.
The school has the support of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who has awarded $3.5 million to the college to reinvest in their campus over the last two years to implement new programs and upgrade facilities.
Campbell said their primary goal is to support the needs of the workforce today, but also be proactive about their future needs to extending their reach with new programs.
“They all provide a vital pulse to our economy,” Campbell said. “They’re already providing jobs. They’re already contributing to the community. So we want to make sure that we support them with the workforce they need.
“From an economic development standpoint, if you’re not providing for your current industry, new industry will not want to come in.”
The college is starting two new programs in the fall, adding a composites course and mechatronics, which is an industrial maintenance program, to help supply the local workforce.
The college also boasts an avionics program and a CDL truck driving certification program it started in the fall to address Alabama’s No. 1 workforce shortage.
There are no requirements for high school graduates to enter the program. The application is free, and the college offers help through financial aid.