The Booming Field of Aviation Technology

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2014 nearly 40 percent of employees in large aviation and aerospace businesses will be eligible for retirement, creating a huge demand for trained technicians in the field. Initially, the sector will grow by 6 percent for aircraft equipment mechanics and technicians, who perform scheduled maintenance on airplanes and helicopters.

Median annual pay for someone with an associate's degree in Airframe Maintenance or Powerplant, who passes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mechanics certificate exams, was $53,280 in 2010. Graduates work with airlines, cargo fleets, airline manufacturers, helicopter operators and corporate aircraft fleets. They perform maintenance on airplanes and helicopters as well as conducting inspections required by the FAA.

Clearly, Aviation Technology is a growing field and community colleges are a major source of skilled workers for the industry. And it's not just planes. Wind turbines, some race cars and even boats are powered by turbine engines similar to those on aircraft, opening up additional job possibilities for trained technicians.

At Ivy Tech community college in Indiana, there has been an increase in enrollment in our Northeast Aviation Technology Program located at Smith Field Airport in Fort Wayne. The new $2.3 million Aviation Center has attracted 82 students with capacity for 200. The school works closely with area businesses such as Pinnacle Airlines and AAR who recruit aviation graduates. The course of instruction covers control methods, team building, technical writing, and computer skills. Tuition including labs is around $3,300 a year.

In addition, Ivy Tech has set up a program that has enrolled 23 high school students interested in this exciting field. Those students are prepared to take the FAA exam for Powerplant certification with the option of returning after graduation to complete the Airframe License classes or work toward an Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Maintenance Technology.

A $1.5 million aviation maintenance grant from the U.S. Department of Labor earmarked to help displaced workers in Northeast Indiana, has enabled Ivy Tech to train sheet metal installers, airframe installers and electrical installers -- all skills needed by local businesses.

Elsewhere, South Seattle Community College works closely with Boeing to meet its workforce needs. The school has a long history of producing aviation technicians dating back to the 1930s when it was Edison Technical College. Aircraft mechanics in the Seattle area with just a two year associate's degree and certification earn more than $78,000.

Portland Community College in Oregon has trained aviation mechanics since 1969. The institution operates a 30,000 square-foot, two-hanger complex with 16 aircraft used exclusively for instruction, including helicopters that are often used in law enforcement.

Before recommending a four-year college, high school guidance counselors and parents should determine whether a student would be better served at a community college in a program that virtually guarantees employment. The same is true for returning vets and displaced workers. Aviation technology is one of these fields.

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