To combat a national shortage of aircraft mechanics, the Federal Aviation Administration has given Lincoln Land Community College a $500,000 grant.
"We earmarked over half of that money to be for student support: tuition, books and tools. We're also helping them pay for their testing that they'll do upon graduation," said Nancy Sweet, dean of the college's workforce institute.
She said the grant helps pay for up to 75% of the tuition for eligible students, plus tools and books, with an emphasis on recruiting women and students of color. Additional financial aid assistance is available for those who qualify.
There is a strong demand for technicians with these skills not only nationally but also locally, said Dave Pietrzak, director of the college's aviation program. Many graduates work for StandardAero, previously known as Garrett Aviation, at Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.
The program started in 2001 after Garrett officials expressed a strong desire for LLCC to train people to have the skills their business needed, he said.
StandardAero's Springfield location houses one of North America's top corporate jet service facilities. For more than 40 years, the operation with more than 220 employees has performed hundreds of modifications, major structural repairs, inspections, interior refurbishments, avionics installations and painted business jet aircraft.
Pietrzack said graduates of the program are now earning more than $100,000 annually. He said this reflects the overall demand for people with skills in the aviation industry.
"There haven't been enough people to do everything that needs to be done," he said. "So now, every facet of aviation – every person who works in aviation, whatever the job might be, is in demand, whether it's the Federal Aviation Administration, whether it's the people who run the control tower, whether it's a ticket agent, a ramp agent, a pilot – they're all in great need. And we're just focusing in right now on teaching technicians to be what we call airframe and powerplant mechanics."
In a separate move, airport and local economic development officials have been in discussions with Southern Illinois University to create a pilot training facility at the airport. Eventually, the pilot training program may have more than 100 students, said Mike Murphy, president and CEO of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. He said he anticipates SIU making a formal announcement within two months.
Sweet said LLCC offers an 18-month program that certifies that its graduates are proficient in airframe and powerplant mechanics. The college also offers a two-year associate degree. Between nine and 14 students are enrolled in the program each semester, she said.
The shortage of skilled workers doesn't surprise people in the aviation industry, Pietrzak said.
"Five years ago, we could definitely see the situation coming," he said. "Seventy-five percent of all the technicians were age 50 or older. And it's only gotten higher since then. Guys are retiring, and there are not enough people replacing them. I've been involved in aviation since 1974, when I first went to school. I have never seen such a demand for qualified individuals."
Most of the people entering the training are recent high school graduates, although they do have some older students as well, he said.
"I have seen the wages increasing almost exponentially in the last five years," Pietrzak said. "And it's become a pretty lucrative position. With our program, you only need 18 months of training. We have seen some of the starting wages go from $15 an hour a few years back to $30 an hour – at the same place. And there are places where there's even a little higher starting wage right out of school. Plus, of course, this is a job where they still offer benefits and there's a lot of future."
Open houses for students interested in this career will be held from 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays, June 27 and July 11, at LLCC's Levi, Ray and Shoup Aviation Center at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].