Traverse City News and Events

Fixing The Plane: Career-Tech Center Plots New Aviation Maintenance Program To Address Industry-Wide Labor Shortages

By Craig Manning | April 30, 2023

Flight delays and cancellations; route discontinuations; frustrated passengers: These issues have grown increasingly common in the commercial aviation world since COVID, with most people attributing them to widely-reported pilot, flight attendant, and gate agent shortages. But did you know that airlines are also having trouble hiring the people who make sure airplanes are ready to take to the skies each day?

Here’s the situation: In the coming decade, a shortage of aviation mechanics is predicted to cause a ripple effect that will touch anyone who flies commercial. According to a recent report from consulting firm Oliver Wyman, the United States could be in for a shortfall of “more than 48,000 aircraft maintenance workers” by 2027 – an issue “likely to result in fewer flights and delays and cancellations, or airlines having to compensate by keeping more spare aircraft and parts on hand.”

Northwest Education Services (North Ed) is aware of that projected shortfall, and is hoping to do its part in addressing the impending crisis. Starting this fall, North Ed’s Career-Tech Center (CTC) in Traverse City will be offering a program intended to train the next generation of aircraft mechanics.

The Ticker has previously reported on the nationwide shortage of pilots – and on efforts by Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) to meet industry-wide pilot demand by expanding its aviation programming. Amidst all the talk about pilots, co-pilots, and other flight staff though, Kevin Klein – CEO of Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) – says that some of the other needs in the industry are going overlooked and unaddressed.

“Every aspect of the aviation field has been impacted with staffing shortages,” Klein says. While pilot training programs are revving up to respond to the crisis, Klein tells The Ticker that there simply aren’t as many opportunities to pursue the specialized skilled trades training that aircraft mechanics need. “The training opportunities are just not as plentiful on the aircraft maintenance side of things as they are for pilots,” Klein continues. “We see lots of colleges with aviation programs, whether it’s NMC or universities like Western Michigan, or Purdue, or Embry-Riddle. A lot of schools have pilot programs or aerospace engineering programs, but not a lot of schools have aircraft maintenance programs.”

According to Klein, it’s not just that there are fewer college programs out there for aviation maintenance, but also that most of the aviation-related interest among high school graduates tends to focus squarely on pilot jobs. There’s less exposure to aircraft mechanic jobs, which means fewer students pursue that route after high school.

Patrick Lamb, who leads the CTC as North Ed’s assistant superintendent of career and technical education, sees the creation of an aviation maintenance program in Traverse City as a great way of introducing local students to these careers. Already, he says, simply talking about the program with prospective students is generating big interest.

“We had our normal CTC visits this spring for 10th graders, and those students were asked on a form, ‘If an aviation maintenance program opened up here in the fall, would that program be your first choice?’” Lamb says. “So, we asked that question of our incoming students, as well as our juniors that are coming back, and we had just over 100 indications that, yes, this program would be a first choice for them if it was offered.”

Those numbers were enough to convince the CTC advisory board that aviation maintenance should be part of the institution’s programming. North Ed also easily found a few willing partners to pitch in with the program where possible, including both TVC and NMC. The primary partner, meanwhile, will be Legacy Aviation, a local aviation learning center with hangar space that connects to TVC. Per a North Ed press release, that space will serve as the main classroom for the new CTC program – though, the hangar will need to be renovated “to ensure that the facility complies with requirements for a K-12 educational setting.”

Those renovations won’t be completed in time for the fall 2023 semester, so North Ed will kick off the new program in a temporary classroom at the CTC building. Lamb says North Ed is also still searching for a teacher and a teacher’s assistant to helm the program.

While certain aspects of the program remain up in the air, though, other facets – such as the curriculum and the overall direction of the coursework – have already been laid out. CTC Curriculum Director Christopher Haines says the goal is to put students on a pathway toward earning an A&P (airframe and powerplant) certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Mechanics with those licenses are the only people who are legally qualified to work on airplanes at airports or for aviation schools like NMC.

“You need an A&P certificate to work on airplane mechanical systems, landing gear, brake systems, de-icing equipment, you name it,” Haines says. “So, the students need to be mechanically inclined, but also, they’ll get a technical background in terms of writing as well, because there are lots of reports that A&P mechanics have to go through. They need to know how to read technical manuals, for instance, because there are a whole bunch of different types of planes out there, and they’re not all the same.”

While students won’t earn their A&P certificate through the CTC, Lamb says the goal is to give graduates a base of knowledge and experience that they can carry forward to post-secondary aviation maintenance programs. “Then, instead of having to complete an 18-month college program [to earn their A&P certificate], the thought is that they could shave maybe six months off their time,” he explains. “Like with most of our programs, our kids will get a head start after high school.”

“Having that attraction to get started at the high school level is great,” Klein adds. “And then to be able to continue on and get those certifications through the FAA, that’s just a fabulous opportunity for our local students. I’m very excited about this program. The career field of aircraft mechanics, A&P mechanics, is very rewarding: long careers; lots of job opportunities; six-figure incomes. It’s just awesome. There’s close to 100 based aircraft here at TVC, and we need people to be able to maintain those aircraft. And then every airport across the state of Michigan needs maintenance folks, too. I think this program will be a great starting point to get kids introduced and on a path to be able to achieve fantastic things in this industry.”

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