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Aviation Mechanics A High-Flying Field

Boeing released a study saying the industry will need 650,000 new maintenance technicians globally by 2030, leaving many well-paying opportunities for newcomers.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Deregulation created turbulence for commercial airlines. The economic crunch grounded many private pilots. But the biggest challenge facing the aviation industry, as a whole, is finding enough workers to keep planes ready for takeoff.

A third of the students in Lincoln Land Community College's aviation mechanics program leave classes in Hangar 4 at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport to head to work at the neighboring StandardAero — a global leader in aviation maintenance services.

"(Commercial) airlines is what everyone sees," LLCC instructor Rick Stillman said. "They were having a rough time . so people don't look at going into this field."

Program director Jim Van Kleek said despite the attention focused on commercial airlines' woes, the aviationindustry is a great employment opportunity.

"I get calls continuously from companies looking for aviation mechanics," Van Kleek said. "A lot of people just don't realize aviation is a good career to go into."

Hourly wages begin at $15 to $20 for newly certified workers.

Boeing released a study in June saying the industry will need 650,000 new maintenance technicians globally by 2030 to keep up with growth, as well as replace a coming wave of retirements.

That breaks down to 32,500 new technicians annually.

The bulk of the growth is occurring in the Asia Pacific region, Boeing's study said. China alone is projected to create more than 108,000 technician jobs. But demand also is strong in North America, where 134,800 newaviation technician jobs are expected.

If so, that would nearly double the number of U.S. employees working in the field. The 2010 U.S. Census figures showed there are 140,000 aviation mechanics nationwide, 80 percent of them over the age of 40.

Tyler Spain, 47, didn't need a study to point him to the field.

The former auto-body mechanic got a job at StandardAero in the paint department. It wasn't long much later when he enrolled in LLCC's aviation mechanics program.

"An airplane is the only thing I hadn't painted," the Springfield resident said. "I wanted to try something different, and now I'm on the inside. I can broaden my horizons in many ways."

Spain will graduate in five weeks, ready to take the Federal Aviation Administration airframe and power-plantmechanics certification exam, after logging the program's 1,921 hours training. That's 21 hours more than FAA requirements.

At StandardAero, he's already been promoted to mechanic's work in the company's service department.

LLCC's aviation mechanics program celebrates its 11th anniversary next week. During that time, the program has prepared 147 graduates and has become a regional draw for those interested in the career.

Currently there are 19 students enrolled.

"We are the only community college south of Rockford with an aviation mechanics program," said David Green, LLCC's dean of business and technologies. "We have agreements with a lot of community colleges for their students to study here."

Green said there are three out-of-district students in the program now, coming from Bloomington, Decatur and Peoria.

Even so, Van Kleek said there is a need to let the public know classes are available locally.

The program offers three classes that run simultaneously from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Justin Skelton, 24, of San Jose said he learned about careers in aviation mechanics from an Internet search that led him to the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Indianapolis. He transferred to LLCC after learning he could get the same degree for less money and commute from home.

The 18-month program for airframe and power-plant certification costs $12,700.

"I grew up really liking airplanes," he said. "Obviously, the fact there's plenty of jobs out there is a bonus."

Dale Forton, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, said demand also is rising because other industries are hiring certified mechanics away from aviation.

"Amusement parks are learning to hire them, and lately, the biggest trend is wind-turbine manufacturers," Forton said. "They are all trained in physics, torque, electrical inspection and other items that are very important to a big propeller turning in the air."

Forty percent of people with airframe and power-plant certificates were working outside aviation, according to 2010 Census figures.

Forton said aviation companies have begun to take the lead to educate the public about job opportunities. One airline repair company has begun giving middle school students tours of its facilities in hopes of igniting their interest.

"We're seeing smaller corporations doing job shadows. PAMA goes to job fairs," he said. "There are a bunch of small efforts that are starting to become a large effort to educate."

StandardAero — then Garrett Aviation/General Electric — played a role in bringing the aviation mechanicsprogram to Springfield.

LLCC began exploring the possibility of an aviation mechanics program in 1998, when it learned the University of Illinois was phasing out its program. Startup costs were reduced with the help of equipment donations from the U of I and Garrett Aviation.

Van Kleek, a former sheet metal technician at StandardAero, said the company still provides equipment for instructional use. And many of the instructors, like Van Kleek, have or still work for the company.

Forton said few community colleges are able to offer aviation mechanics programs because of the expense.

"It's a large overhead," he said. "You have to have airplanes for students to work on. That's a large asset to just sit there."

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