Aircraft mechanic shortage means boom times for aviation programs
DULUTH – Kieran Cummings has a year of school left, but he’s already making a living repairing commercial jets. After a day of classes at one hangar at the airport here, he heads to another where he works late into the night — some caffeine required.
“We’re tearing these things apart, and we’re doing everything,” said the Lake Superior College student. “The experience, you can’t beat it.”
It takes a lot of people on the ground to keep airplanes in the sky, and a shortage of aircraft mechanics around the country is causing employers to get creative and some school programs to swell.
As aviation booms in the Duluth area, led by plane maker Cirrus Aircraft and aviation services company AAR Corp., Lake Superior College (LSC) is doubling down on the industry thanks in part to cash and material donations that have stretched into six figures in recent years. Enrollment in the aircraft maintenance technology program hit another record this year.
“We’re seeing these workforce shortages across the board in manufacturing, health care, but aviation is stepping up and putting some skin in the game,” said Daniel Fanning, the school’s director of institutional advancement.
Minneapolis Community and Technical College has likewise seen enrollment grow for its aircraft maintenance program, located inside the Delta Air Lines hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The airline has also partnered with LSC and dozens of other schools around the country to “mentor and source the next generation of aircraft maintenance technicians” as it faces more than 2,000 retirements in the next decade, said Delta spokesperson Morgan Durrant.
Across North America, Boeing estimates there will be demand for 193,000 aircraft mechanics over the next 20 years.
Still hard to recruit
But aviation programs are costly to maintain and still hard to recruit for. The University of Minnesota Crookston recently suspended its program — which had been around since the school was founded in 1967 — citing increasing expenses and only modest enrollment. Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls has seen its aviation enrollment shrink as a strong economy deters those who might want to go back to school to change careers.
Industry support — which in Duluth includes donated parts from Cirrus and tuition reimbursement for students who sign on for two years at AAR — has been crucial to building the workforce pipeline.
The rest is up to students.
“If you don’t get a job in aviation right now, it’s because you’re not trying,” said LSC instructor William Beecroft.
In just five years, LSC’s program has grown from a handful of students to more than 80 this year. Beecroft chalks that up to a growing awareness and a steady increase in the school’s resources, like a recently donated retired corporate jet. It also reflects the industry in Duluth, which has grown by 40% over the past decade to 3,200 jobs, according to state figures.
One recent morning, students were in a hangar-based classroom trying to wrap their heads around whether an aircraft on a conveyor belt could ever take off.
“Technically, yes,” Beecroft said.
But it’s not all math, he said: “For me it’s just letting people know that it’s really not a hard career if you’re motivated, and you think planes are for you.”
Brayden Wellman had that thought when he moved from the metro area to enroll at LSC. The 18-year-old, who loves working on cars, also is working some hours at Sky Harbor Airport on Duluth’s Park Point.
“We get really immersed,” he said, pointing to Cirrus right next door to the college’s aviation campus, or F-16s taking off from the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing.
Cummings, meanwhile, starts his days at 8 a.m. and often ends them as late as 2 a.m., between classes and his job at AAR on the other side of the runway.
“It’s challenging, without a doubt,” said the 24-year-old Minneapolis native. “There has not been a job where I just continuously learn so much.”
When prospective students tour the Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s aviation campus, they get excited, an administrator said.
“They will be studying in the same building where these mechanics maintain and repair Delta airplanes,” said Vincent Thomas, dean of the School of Business and Economics and School of Trade Technologies.
Its aircraft maintenance program has grown nearly to capacity — 70 students this year — with a boost from the Delta partnership that first started in 2013 and includes help with marketing as well as donations.
Northland Community and Technical College also boasts an airport campus and a 100% job-placement rate for its aircraft maintenance program, though enrollment has sagged.
“Everybody is begging for mechanics,” said Lynn McGlynn, aerospace case manager and academic adviser at Northland, whose phone rings often with companies looking for recruits. “These companies are going to have to start giving incentives because there’s so much competition out there.”
Attract and retain
AAR, which in Duluth performs routine maintenance on commercial jets, is looking at offering free mountain bike and kayak rentals on top of tuition assistance and other perks to lure hires. With steady work from United Airlines and a 20-year lease recently signed at the hangar that was once home to Northwest Airlines, the proactive approach is a necessary one.
“We’re doing a lot of different things to try to attract people to Duluth, and also getting people to change careers,” said Pete DeSutter, AAR’s director of business development.
The publicly traded company, based in Illinois with operations around the world, employs about 350 people in Duluth today. DeSutter wants that number closer to 400, especially with a fourth maintenance line opening this month. Luckily for DeSutter, a lot of new hires are staying: “I would say they’re coming in faster than they’re leaving.”