Careers that Take Off

The announcement back in July that Airbus would be setting up a gigantic production facility in Mobile to build commercial aircraft raised eyebrows in the aviation community throughout the world. But to the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC), it was a signal to move their program into high gear.

Airbus’ demand for trained airframe and engine mechanics only added fuel to the fire of a growing aircraft maintenance, overhaul and repair (MRO) industry in the state, says Tucson Roberts, AAC’s dean of aviation and workforce. “This changes everything. It was an enormous announcement, doing for Alabama’s aviation industry what the Mercedes announcement back in 1993 did for the automobile industry, ” he says.

The Airbus announcement boosted enrollment at the program’s Mobile campus by 60 percent, to 215 as of early September. Roberts explains that the Mobile campus is one of two in the five-campus program that offers programs leading to accreditation by the Federal Aviation Administration in airframe and power plant repair and maintenance. 

“We’re the only public institution in the state that can grant those certifications, ” he says.

But interest in the training program was growing even before Airbus. Headquartered in Ozark but administered through Enterprise State Community College, AAC’s enrollment has seen a five-fold increase over the past 10 years, Roberts says, from less than 200 to just over 1, 000 statewide today.

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It all began in 1960 with the original Ozark facility, but since then AAC has grown into a statewide program, with a second full-scale program in Mobile and branch campuses in Andalusia, Albertville and Decatur. The branch campuses offer a limited curriculum in airframe mechanics, with students transferring to Ozark or Mobile to finish the program.

The Alabama Aviation Center added a dual enrollment program in 2005 that allows high school students to enter the program as early as their sophomore year.

With demand for graduates increasing, the school added a dual enrollment program in 2005 that allows high school students drawn to aviation to fast-start their education, entering the program as early as their sophomore year, with virtually no tuition cost. A young person who starts during their sophomore year can be well on the way to certification by high school graduation time, Roberts says, citing the case of a young woman from Covington County who was awarded her airframe certification at the same time she graduated from high school.

The market for those trained students is growing, says Roberts, with employment opportunities in both Alabama and surrounding states. Perhaps the largest employer is Fort Rucker-based Army Fleet Support, a private company with major contracts for MRO support of the Army’s helicopter fleet at Fort Rucker.

Other private companies, such as Sikorsky in Troy, Vector Aerospace in Andalusia and ST Aerospace in Mobile, stand in line to hire AAC graduates. At the other end of the state, Huntsville companies, such as Yulista, Westwind and SESI, provide job opportunities.

Employment opportunities also abound in other states, both with airlines and with MRO companies. The school’s long history of turning out well-trained graduates works to its favor. Roberts says potential employers visit the program’s campuses frequently to look at the upcoming crop of graduates. “They come here mainly from Florida and Georgia, ” Roberts says, “because they all know we’re here and the reputation we have.” 

All told, AAC places about 300 students per year. The future looks bright as Alabama’s aviation industry grows. “We have graduates working all over the U.S. As we like to say, ‘If it flies, we fix it.’”

To support its statewide mission, the AAC has full programs at Ozark and Mobile, and branch campuses offering limited curriculum at Andalusia, Albertville and Decatur.

Alabama has training, too, for those who want to design new craft, rather than fix used ones. Auburn University,   the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama in Huntsville have aeronautical engineering programs, where students can get the education they need to be aircraft designers, rocket engineers, propulsion engineers, or specialize in structural design or hydraulics—jobs that command starting salaries up to $60, 000.

But their job prospects, rosy in the last decade, are now tinged with some uncertainty. John Cochran, who heads Auburn University’s department of aerospace engineering, says threats of budget cuts in defense and aerospace research and development cast some clouds on the job prospects of aerospace engineering graduates.

“We have a lot of uncertainty about where things are going, but I still think things are pretty good. You still have the basic demand in place, thanks to companies like Boeing and Airbus, which means we will still be using aerospace engineers, ” he says. He also points to steady demand for satellites for remote sensing, as well as a growing demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Army’s Predator and Global Hawk.

Stanley Jones, who heads the aerospace engineering and mechanics department at the University of Alabama, says thousands of impending retirements among baby boom-era aeronautical engineers will create openings for new graduates. “I understand that times right now are uncertain, ” he says, “but we’ll need a lot of new engineers.”

Even if the demand for aeronautical engineers declines, says Jones, the academic rigor required to get the degree makes it easy for those holding it to switch into other engineering disciplines. “You become highly retrainable. You can adapt for just about anything, not just designing airplanes.”

Mike Kelley is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.

By Mike Kelley

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