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Alabama workforce training programs gearing up for Airbus

MOBILE, Alabama – Before Airbus can deliver passenger jets made in Alabama to the world’s airlines, Alabama workforce training programs must first deliver workers who can assemble them.

It’s not exactly new territory for a state that has landed mega-projects from Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai, Austal and other manufacturers in recent years. And the Airbus effort is already gaining momentum, with the state’s lead Alabama workforce training agency, AIDT, its two-year college system and others forming partnerships, assembling teams and developing strategies to provide a skilled workforce prepared to do the job.

“Alabama has the best workforce you will find anywhere,” Gov. Robert Bentley said. “Our workers already produce the best automobiles, the best rockets, the best ships – and soon the best airplanes.”

The site at Mobile Brookley Aeroplex will house a $600 million final assembly line for the Airbus A320 family of narrow-body jets, the company’s top-selling line. The 1,000 workers will assemble 40 to 50 aircraft a year, with the first delivery set for 2016.

“With Airbus, this is their first facility in the country,” AIDT Director Ed Castile said. “They picked Alabama for a reason – and one important factor is workforce and getting it trained.”

AIDT will perform recruiting and pre-employment training, a role it has played on high-profile economic development projects dating back to Mercedes. The workforce training component of Airbus’ incentive package was valued at $51 million.

“AIDT’s role can’t be overstated,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.  “AIDT was a key component of the decision that led Airbus to Alabama in the first place.”

The Alabama Community College System is an important player in the effort to train Airbus workers. AIDT is already partnering with the Alabama Aviation Center at Brookley, which is operated by Enterprise State Community College, on training programs for Airbus. Enrollment at the Alabama Aviation Center’s Mobile facility has surged 66 percent in the last year, primarily because of the Airbus announcement.

“There were hundreds of people lined up outside the doors of the Alabama Aviation Center in Mobile after the Airbus announcement,” said Amy Brabham, vice chancellor for career and technical education and workforce development for the two-year college system.

Other ACCS institutions in the Mobile area are already tweaking their industrial maintenance programs and initiatives to respond to Airbus’ needs, and the system is teaming with high schools in Mobile and Baldwin counties to launch aviation-training programs. In Mobile, it is working with B.C. Rain High School, which is piloting an Aerospace and Aviation Academy that will introduce students to the high-wage, high-demand fields. The school is located just three miles from Brookley.

In Baldwin County, the K-12 school system, the Alabama Aviation Center and Faulkner State Community College are collaborating to establish a $2.5 million center at the Fairhope airport to provide Alabama workforce training needed by Airbus and other area employers.

“It’s something we have never done before,” Brabham said.

AIDT is constructing a $6 million, 35,000-square-foot training facility next door to the Alabama Aviation Center at Brookley that will house labs and classrooms to train potential Airbus employees. AIDT already operates on-site training centers at Mercedes, ThyssenKrupp and other large manufacturers in Alabama.

In the meantime, Castile said, AIDT has assembled a team to develop training programs for Airbus. The agency will produce training videos and manuals and other materials to teach workers how to assemble a sophisticated passenger jet that can cost $100 million.

For Castile, who has spearheaded many such programs, it’s a familiar routine. He has directed AIDT since 1993, the year that Mercedes-Benz announced it was opening its first U.S. plant in Alabama. AIDT has developed a world-class reputation as a workforce development agency, providing pre-employment services and on-the-job training at no charge to companies since its launch in 1971.

“Obviously, this is a plane that is already being built elsewhere. However, the latest and greatest technology will be added,” Castile said.

Castile said the AIDT Airbus team already has made trips to the company’s Hamburg, Germany, plant to observe processes performed there. It’s another step to make sure Airbus’ Alabama workers are ready for their task.

“Our folks are working on this full time,” he said. “This is their only job.”

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