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Alabama Aviation Center trains students for careers in growing aerospace industry

MOBILE, Alabama — It’s two years before Airbus begins producing airplanes in Mobile, but Alabama students have already taken flight through training at the Alabama Aviation Center. They are getting prepared for the jobs of the future in an industry that will alter the landscape of Alabama much like Mercedes-Benz did with its auto plant in the 1990’s. The positions are good-paying jobs that require a world-class workforce for team members who are highly skilled and reliable.

The Alabama Aviation Center is the only post-secondary aviation training facility authorized by the Alabama State Board of Education.  The center has locations in Enterprise, Ozark, Mobile, Andalusia, Decatur, and Albertville. Another training program is set to open at the Fairhope airport in January 2014.

Nancy Chandler, president of Enterprise State Community College, said the courses that will be offered there are avionics and airframe and powerplant maintenance. “These students will be trained to enter a workforce in aerospace — an industry that will not only provide these students a good career, but also enhance the quality of life for their families,” she said. “These courses and this program will enhance the community’s economic development initiatives.”

Baldwin County Public Schools Superintendent Alan Lee said plans for the center have been five years in the making. Partners in the venture are Faulkner State Community College, Enterprise State, the Fairhope Airport Authority and the Baldwin County Board of Education.

“This facility is going to train young people for a career,” Lee said. “It will give them skills they will use for the rest of their lives and will change the model of how we do education in Baldwin County, the State of Alabama, junior colleges, communities, the state, and schools – who all must come together to bring a dream to fruition.”

Plans are also under way to develop the state’s first program to teach maintenance on unmanned aircraft, systems, one of the fastest growing aviation segments. Only two other programs of its kind exist in the United States, none in the Southeast. Courses in advanced composites and simulator maintenance are also planned.

The Alabama Aviation Center — a division of Enterprise State Community College — will launch the program January 2014 with $360,000 in initial grant funding from the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development. Program graduates will be certified technicians qualified in both manned and unmanned aircraft maintenance.

The unmanned program has already received support from area industries that see a need for this training. “The challenge of converting a manned helicopter into an unmanned-only aerial vehicle requires skills that are not taught in traditional aviation mechanic training programs,” said Barry Ford, general manager of Bell Helicopter-Ozark. “The Alabama Aviation Center’s creation of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance Program will provide immediate and lasting benefits to its students, the local economy, and industry alike.”

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International project, about 23,000 unmanned aircraft systems jobs will be created during the next 15 years and most of these jobs will be in manufacturing and with related suppliers.

In the past six years, student enrollment has grown by more than 210 percent at Alabama Aviation Center in Ozark alone, showing the tremendous interest Alabama workers have in the aerospace and aviation industries. The college has 1,100 students.

Courses in industrial maintenance and welding and other technical aviation skills are offered, as well as dual-enrollment for high school juniors and seniors. The program is open to adults attending the community colleges.

Tucson Roberts, dean of Aviation and Workforce Development and special assistant to the president at the Alabama Aviation Center, said the training students receive at AAC can’t be compared to a traditional classroom because the students work on real engines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the center has a great relationship with companies in the industry, which often provide equipment.

Aviation Division Director Jay Harbert said this hands-on learning is one reason the center’s programs stand out. “The biggest difference in our programs and other schools is that we consistently exceed the minimum standards required by the Federal Aviation Administration,” he said. These standards, he added, are what industry partners expect.

“It’s a challenging curriculum,” Harbert said, “but it’s exciting to see our students enter the FAA testing and then get employed.”  He said 10 years ago, a degree was not nearly as important to the aviation industry as it is now. Now, he says, industries expect high academic standards as well as the technical training. “Our students are getting the best of both worlds,” he said.

Roberts said he sees the opportunity for Alabama to become an aerospace center not only for the United States, but for the entire world. “We believe this state has an unbelievable opportunity, especially with the expansion of unmanned vehicles and advanced composites training.”


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