By Mark Eichmann
Many college graduates are facing a fairly bleak job market and the prospect of competing against each other for a limited number of open positions. But there’s one industry in Delaware where the potential openings far outpace the number of qualified applicants: aviation.
Inside a group of hangars at the New Castle Airport, 360 workers repair, overhaul, paint and maintain Falcon jets owned by high-profile celebrities and corporate leaders. “Our clients spend a lot of money on airplanes, and they spend the money so they’re flying,” says General Manager of Dassault Falcon’s Wilmington facility Kevin Malutinok. “We try to return them to service as soon as possible.” Sometimes crews from Dassault Falcon’s facility in Wilmington fly out to do emergency work on customers planes. “Actually anywhere around the world we’ve been. We’ll send a crew within minutes to an hour to support that aircraft and make sure that it’s back in service as soon as possible.” Despite the economic downturn, business is booming at Dassault Wilmington. The company has so much work, they need to grow. They’re in talks with the Governor’s office and the airport operator, the Delaware River and Bay Authority, to expand adding another hangar and as many as 200 more jobs, but there’s one hang-up. “The biggest hindrance to that is manpower,” says Malutinok. “This part of the country is not as wealthy with that experience that’s needed…so right now we currently have to relocate people and try to find them from other areas like the Midwest and it makes things a little more difficult and obviously more costly.”
Teaching the next generation
But there is an effort to train local students to fill those jobs. Delaware Technical and Community College has launched a program to train aircraft technicians how to work on a variety of planes, like those at Dassault. “We teach our students how to work on all systems of the aircraft,” says Barry Weiss who heads up the Del. Tech aviation program.
The school’s aviation program is based at the Sussex County Airport in Georgetown. The school has recently accelerated the program to get students into the workforce faster. “We’re condensing the program to decrease it from a standard community college two year course, down to 18 months, because the need is so great out there,” says Weiss. Del. Tech’s program is coordinated with local companies like Dassault and PATS Aircraft, which is also located at the Sussex airport. Both companies have representatives on the aviation school’s advisory board. “They contribute to where they’re at now, what their hiring needs are going to be,” says Weiss. “We definitely want to supply their needs so they stay in our state.” For Dassault, the graduates can’t hit the job market soon enough to meet their plans to grow. “We have to ensure that we can get the people before we can take that step [to expand], and we would like to take that step, it’s needed by our customers, it’s need by our company, we just have to ensure that this is the place to do it.”
A 2006 state study on the impact of aviation in Delaware found that the industry supported more than 15,000 workers and contributed $265 million in state and federal tax revenue. A big bulk of the state’s aviation workers are based at Dover Air Force Base. Currently about 6,400 military personnel work at DAFB including 3,900 active duty, 1,500 reservists and 1,000 civilians. Officials say DAFB contributes $466 million to the local economy.
The Delaware Air National Guard is based out of the New Castle Airport with about 1,100 members. That number fluctuates as members retire or are transferred. At any given time, there are about 400 full-time positions and 700 part-time positions based at the New Castle Airport.