Industry Market Trends

Initiative Spotlight Series: 3 Regional Programs Fostering Aircraft Manufacturing Skills

Jul 01, 2013

In continuing IMT Career Journal's series highlighting projects and initiatives to help the U.S. manufacturing sector create good jobs, we look at a few programs that are preparing the next-generation high- and middle-skilled workforce in three regional hubs of aerospace and aviation manufacturing in the U.S.

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In U.S. aerospace and aviation, two distinct but related industries, companies are facing aging workforces and potential shortages in skilled manufacturing talent in machining, sheetmetal fabricators, composites manufacturing, and technical areas. Plugging the talent gap in these sectors is imperative to the nation's competitiveness.

"A robust and innovative workforce is critical to the aerospace industry's ability to remain globally competitive," Susan C. Lavrakas, the Aerospace Industries Association's director of workforce, told IMT Career Journal. "Recent years have highlighted the significant mismatch between current and projected aerospace and defense industry job openings and the capabilities of the unemployed or recent graduates from secondary schools and post-secondary institutions.

"Even in a time of relatively high unemployment," Lavrakas continued, "companies are unable to find qualified individuals to fill certain jobs requiring various levels of competency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics."

The importance of developing future STEM talent has rightly been in the national spotlight, yet arguably less attention has been paid to fostering the next generation of workers in the skilled trades.

"Oftentimes the focus is on developing engineers and scientists, but we also have to think about ways that we educate the blue-collar workforce," said Bruce Olsson, chair of the Aerospace States Association's Workforce Committee and assistant director of legislative and political action at the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers union. "Countries that do that are very successful in terms of high-wage, high-skill export economies, and that's the direction we need to be going in as well," he told IMT Career Journal.

As with companies in most other, if not all, manufacturing industries, aerospace firms that can successfully develop, attract, and retain a highly skilled workforce will be those that prosper in the coming years, industry leaders agree.

In Aviation Week's 2012 Workforce Study, based on responses from 37 companies that employ 80 percent of the U.S. aerospace and defense sector, approximately 82 percent of respondents identified a well-trained workforce as the most important factor in future business success.

As the aerospace and aviation manufacturing environments evolve, demanding critical new skills of their respective workforce, education and training institutions need to do a better job of arming workers with the right tools for success.

A 2013 paper from Manpower wrote: "Most technical training in North America takes place in two-year technical and community colleges. Few of the specific programs offered by each school are coordinated nationally or even regionally. Some programs are linked to industries and companies in their particular region; this is most likely in large and well-established industries such as automobile and aircraft manufacturing. If there is no dominant manufacturing industry in a region, it is much less likely that a two-year institution will offer programs in manufacturing technology."

Indeed, some schools, companies, and manufacturing industries have created their own regional skill-development programs. Here we look at a few such programs, found in regions of the country where aircraft manufacturing has a significant presence.

Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (Washington State)

Washington state is home to Boeing Commercial Airplanes' headquarters and many more aerospace-related companies that design and manufacture products ranging from tires and bolts to in-flight entertainment systems. Over the next five to 10 years, the state will need 5,000 additional aerospace workers each year to build airplanes and other new products, as a large number of aerospace workers retire.

What does the state offer that helps to ensure a highly skilled aerospace and defense workforce?

The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC), comprised of employers and employees, is a statewide nonprofit, registered apprenticeship program for aerospace and advanced manufacturing that provides on-the-job training to anyone new to the workforce or to individuals looking to upgrade their skills. Based on employer and industry needs, AJAC provides registered apprenticeship programs for aircraft-oriented machinists, precision metal fabricators, tool and die makers, and more. It is currently developing other apprenticeship programs, including those for composite manufacturing specialists. Within two to four years, participants earn certification as a master tradesperson and are set on a path toward an associate degree that could turn into a four-year degree.

Also helping the state's aerospace manufacturing workforce maintain its edge is the Washington Aerospace & Advanced Materials Manufacturing Workforce Pipeline Committee, which ensures that workforce training programs in the state meet the needs of the industry. The Washington Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing connects the state's aerospace and advanced materials manufacturing employers with 34 community and technical colleges, as well as other education and training providers.

National Center for Aviation Training (Kansas)

Aircraft and aviation components are crucial to the Kansas economy. The state's aerospace and parts manufacturing industry employs over 40,000 workers. South-central Kansas hosts an impressive aviation cluster, while Wichita, often referred to as the "Air Capital of the World," is home to 200 aviation suppliers that employ some 30,000 workers.

While Kansas' labor supply is boosted by universities offering advanced degrees in aerospace engineering, the aerospace and aviation industries also benefit greatly from the new National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT). Open to both young students and professionals looking to their boost skills, NCAT trains current and future aircraft manufacturing workers in new technologies with cutting-edge instruction and technology. Programs include certificates of completion, technical certificates, and associate degrees in applied science in jobs that are critical to all phases of aircraft manufacture, from machining and mechanical design to composite materials technician and robotics technology.

Wichita Area Technical College serves as the managing partner for NCAT, partnering with Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research, which is considered the largest aerospace research and development academic institution in the nation.

readySC (South Carolina)

There may be other states that lead the nation in aviation and aerospace establishments -- such as Texas, California, Connecticut, and Arizona -- yet few have experienced the rapid growth in recent years that South Carolina has. According to Avalanche Consulting, the state's aerospace industry grew more than 600 percent between 2007 and 2012, with the opening of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner facility and the facilities of related suppliers. These added approximately 5,000 aerospace jobs over the five-year period. "South Carolina was the fastest-growing aerospace state in this period, leading a rapid rise among emerging aerospace manufacturing states as traditional leaders fell," the consultancy says.

The Charleston region alone is home to approximately 70 aerospace and aviation-related businesses, including the majors Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and Booz Allen Hamilton. There are smaller, specialized firms, as well, supplying everything from gears and hoses to computer systems. With its rich military history, Charleston is also home to several aerospace-related military organizations, providing the region with a deep pool of military and defense talent.

One of the state's biggest draws for the aerospace and aviation industries is the availability of high-quality workforce training and education systems. For example, readySC, the highly regarded workforce training program offered through the state's technical college system at no cost to employers, provides customized employee screening and training services, and has played an integral role in gearing up the state's burgeoning aerospace industry's workforce needs.

Meanwhile, Trident Technical College's Aeronautical Studies Division is designed to prepare students for two different career tracts within the aviation industry: aircraft manufacturing and aircraft maintenance. The college also collaborates with local companies to develop company-specific programs. Also, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers a growing number of graduate, undergraduate, and certificate programs ranging from Aeronautical Science to Supply Chain Management.


Read additional IMT Career Journal Initiative Spotlight Series features:

Initiative Spotlight Series: The Manufacturing Institute's M-List

Initiative Spotlight Series: U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Institutes