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Wanted: A New Generation Of High-Tech Aviation Workers

Oct 7, 2013
Originally published on October 7, 2013 10:53 am

Across North Carolina, many license plates read "First in Flight" — a tribute to Orville and Wilbur Wright. Their plane first flew there 110 years ago.

Today, the state has one of the nation's busiest airports and dozens of aviation companies. And finding workers to fill those jobs has been a challenge.

No longer are workers building legs of furniture, hemming shirts and rolling cigarettes. They're fixing GPS technology, working on stabilizers and manufacturing the next era of aviation.

So officials in North Carolina have begun a recruiting effort to encourage students to think about a new kind of manufacturing job, in the aviation field.

Targeting Students And Parents

At TIMCO — an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul company based in Greensboro, N.C. — about a dozen workers are stripping down a Boeing 737 and putting it back together.

"It takes a lot of people, and that's something quite honestly we're struggling with," says Kip Blakely, a vice president with the company. "We're struggling with finding folks with the right skills, the right certification to come to work here at TIMCO."

About 1.6 million people live in the Piedmont Triad region, which is also home to 40 aviation companies. TIMCO is partnering with local chambers of commerce to promote the aviation industry. Commercials directed at teenagers are now airing during football games and prime time sitcoms.

"Are you looking for a rewarding career with room for advancement? How about aviation?" one of the commercials says. "One of the Triad's fastest growing industries. Demand for skilled workers is increasing and local companies are hiring for all types of positions."

Pat Danahy, president of Greensboro's economic partnership team, says economic development officials are also talking to parents about how the industry has changed.

"One of the challenges we're working on right now is getting in front of parents and students to show them it's a totally different manufacturing environment, if you will, than the basic manufacturing that their fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers were involved in," he says.

A New Breed Of Work

And it appears to be working. High Point, N.C., is now home to a specialized high school aviation academy, where students get to use flight simulators, wind tunnels and 3-D printers.

Inside one cluttered, crowded classroom, two dozen Aviation Fundamentals students work in small groups. They're putting popsicle sticks together into bridges before their structures get tested.

Temoor Khan, one of about 120 students in the High Point program, says his interest in aviation took off during his first flight — from Pakistan to the U.S., seven years ago.

"When I came here I thought of being a doctor. Then I changed my mind. I said, I wanted to be an avionics technician," he says.

Students can earn an associate's degree while in high school and receive aviation certifications. They're interested in becoming mechanics, pilots and aviation engineers. Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm based near Washington, D.C., says it's a new breed of high-tech manufacturing jobs.

"It's become far more about, well, software engineers programming machine tools," he says. "That has resulted in fewer jobs, but better jobs — and of course an industry that is far more dependent upon talented and experienced professionals."

Copyright 2013 WUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://wunc.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, building those airplanes has been an important source of American manufacturing jobs, especially because the U.S. has been losing almost three million jobs in that sector over the past decade. With that decline has become more of a challenge to find workers willing to go into manufacturing in the first place. So, in North Carolina, officials have started a new recruiting effort, encouraging students to think about high-tech manufacturing and aviation.

North Carolina Public Radio's Jeff Tiberii reports.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Across North Carolina, many license plates read: First in Flight, a tribute to Orville and Wilbur Wright. Their plane first flew 110 years ago. Today, the state has one of the nation's busiest airports and dozens of aviation companies. But finding workers - not so easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING, HAMMERING)

TIBERII: TIMCO is an aviation maintenance repair and overhaul company based in Greensboro. On this day, about a dozen workers are stripping down a Boeing 737 and putting it back together.

Kip Blakely is a vice president with the company.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

KIP BLAKELY: It takes a lot of people and that's something quite honestly, we're struggling with. We're struggling with finding folks with the right skills, the right certification to come to work here at TIMCO.

TIBERII: So to promote the industry, TIMCO is partnering with local chambers of commerce. Marketing videos directed at teenagers are now airing during football games and primetime sitcoms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you looking for a rewarding career with room for advancement? How about aviation? One of the Triad's fastest growing industries. Demand for skilled workers is increasing and local companies are hiring for all types of positions.

TIBERII: About 1.6 million people live in the Piedmont Triad, which is also home to 40 aviation companies. Pat Danahay is with Greensboro's Chamber of Commerce. He says in addition to targeting students, they're talking to their parents.

PAT DANAHAY: One of the challenges we're working on right now is getting in front of parents and students to show them it's a totally different manufacturing environment if you will, than the basic manufacturing that their fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers were involved in.

TIBERII: And it appears to be working. High Point, North Carolina is a city nicknamed, the Furniture Capital of the World. But that industry is no longer a leading employer. High Point is now home to a specialized high school aviation academy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, five, niner, six three miles from Kearney, fly NA110 - maintain 2,200 until established, clear for the ILS runway...

TIBERII: Students get to use flight simulators, wind tunnels and 3-D printers. Temoor Khan is one of about 120 students in the program. His interest in aviation took off during his first flight, from Pakistan to the US, seven years ago.

TEMOOR KHAN: When I came here, I thought of being a doctor. Then I changed my mind I said, I wanted to be an avionics technician.

TIBERII: Inside a cluttered, crowded classroom, two dozen students work in small groups. They're putting popsicle sticks together before their structures get tested. Kathy Melious teaches the aviation fundamentals class.

KATHY MELIOUS: We're going to try and see how strong this bridge has been built.

TIBERII: Students can earn an associate's degree while in high school and receive aviation certifications. They're interested in becoming mechanics, pilots and aviation engineers. Richard Aboulafia, of the Washington, D.C.-based Teal Group, says it's a new breed of manufacturing jobs.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: It's become far more about, well, software engineers programming machine tools. That's resulted in fewer jobs, but better jobs and. of course, an industry that is far more dependent on talented and experienced professionals.

TIBERII: It has been more than a century since the Wright Brothers brought flight to North Carolina. Today, workers fix GPS systems, update control panels, and like Orville and Wilbur are working to keep the state a leader in the aviation industry.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii in Greensboro, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.