PARIS — The rich history of Alabama’s aerospace industry stretches back to when the Wright Brothers established their first civilian flight school in Montgomery in 1910. Alabama later became the cradle of the nation’s fledgling rocket program and spearheaded development of the mighty Saturn V that took American astronauts to the Moon.
But it’s the possibilities of the future — not the milestones of the past — that an Alabama business development team at the 2023 Paris Air Show is concentrating on. The goal is to win new jobs and investment by expanding the industry’s base across the state.
“Alabama has been involved in the aerospace industry at the highest levels for decades,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “There’s a sweeping range of industry capabilities within the state, meaning that Alabama workers are involved in just about every activity within aerospace, from design to manufacturing.
“Alabama boasts all the resources that make it the perfect location for aerospace,” he added.
There’s an obvious reason Alabama’s economic development team is focused on securing new aerospace industry jobs — the positions pay high wages.
In 2021, aerospace and defense industry employees working in the state earned wages that averaged over $89,000, according to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a trade group.
The industry also generated big benefits across Alabama, contributing state and local taxes totaling $360 million that year, according to the AIA. The federal tax contribution of Alabama’s aerospace and defense industry reached $1.3 billion in 2021, the organization says.
The Alabama team in Paris will seek to capitalize on the presence of key industry decision-makers and to showcase the advantages the state can offer companies in aerospace and defense.
ADVANTAGE No. 1: MOMENTUM
While at Le Bourget Airport, Secretary Canfield and other economic development professionals from the state will seek to build on the $3.6 billion in new capital investment made by the industry in Alabama since 2016.
These growth projects generated over 8,300 direct jobs, according to Commerce data.
The momentum has been gaining steam, with recently announced projects poised to create over 600 industry jobs in Mobile, Selma and Decatur.
- United Launch Alliance and Beyond Gravity, which builds payload fairings for ULA rockets, are growing in Decatur with a combined expansion project valued at $350 million, creating over 200 jobs at ULA’s campus. The growth is being driven by ULA’s selection to provide launch services for Amazon’s Kuiper project.
- VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering Inc. plans to add 200 jobs as it equips its Mobile facility to modify Airbus A320 Family passenger jets as cargo aircraft. VT MAE’s Mobile operation currently has 579 full-time employees.
- Superior Air Parts, which produces FAA-approved replacement parts for piston-engine aircraft, plans to invest $24.2 million to relocate its manufacturing operation and corporate headquarters from Texas to Mobile County. The project will create 180 jobs.
- Virginia-based Resicum International plans to open an aviation training academy at Craig Field in Selma that will prepare the next generation of industry professionals from around the world. The project will create 70 jobs.
ADVANTAGE No. 2: MASSIVE SCALE
The Alabama team in Paris can point to a sweeping range of aerospace/defense industry activities, from R&D and military command organizations to the assembly of passenger jets and the development of rocket and missile systems, among other things.
In fact, the scope of the aerospace and defense sector in Alabama is massive, according to a recent analysis by the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Business.
The university’s report shows that Alabama’s aerospace sector provides over 63,000 jobs with an annual economic impact of roughly $17.4 billion, while the defense industry accounts for 265,000 jobs and a total economic impact of $50 billion a year.
Total defense spending in Alabama reached $16 billion in 2019, equaling nearly 7% of the state’s GDP that year, one of the highest levels among the states, according to UAH. Around 780 Alabama companies received contracts from the Department of Defense that year.
ADVANTAGE No. 3: TAILWINDS
Trends currently unfolding in the industry appear favorable to Alabama’s efforts to grow its aerospace/defense sector.
In Deloitte’s 2023 Aerospace Outlook, analysts noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, workforce shortages, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have exacerbated supply chain complexity for the aerospace and defense industry. These challenges, they note, will likely trigger an acceleration of the shift from global to regional sourcing — a development that could benefit Alabama.
In addition, Deloitte analysts think space and hypersonics will be two of the hottest industry segments attracting investment in 2023 and beyond.
Alabama is well positioned in both, with a heavy concentration of space-related work being done in the Huntsville area, while Lockheed Martin, Dynetics and other companies are conducting hypersonics work in the state.
Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings says the aerospace/defense outlook is improving, with commercial aircraft manufacturers and suppliers benefiting from strong global demand for new aircraft. Fitch forecasts deliveries of new large commercial aircraft will increase by more than 20% this year, compared to 2022.
That’s good news for Airbus, which is expanding production of passenger jets at its Mobile manufacturing facility and operates an engineering center nearby. It’s also positive for Boeing, whose large Alabama presence includes a design center in Huntsville.
ADVANTAGE No. 4: EXPERTISE
With 3,900 aerospace engineers in May 2022, Alabama ranked No. 4 among the states for employment in the profession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Alabama trailed California, Texas and Florida, much more populous states, but ranked ahead of Washington and Colorado.
The BLS data shows that Alabama has the second highest concentration of aerospace engineers, ahead of all states except New Mexico. The average annual wage for these positions in Alabama is $124,000.
The aerospace engineering talent in Alabama is centered in Huntsville, which has 3,360 jobs in the field. The concentration of aerospace engineering positions in Alabama’s “Rocket City” is significantly higher than cities such as Boulder, Colorado; Dayton, Ohio; and Wichita, Kansas, the BLS data show.
In addition, Alabama is committed to foster expertise, with universities offering degrees in aerospace-related disciplines, as well as an extensive roster of training programs and assets.
AIDT’s Robotics Technology Park near Decatur offers specialized training in robotics and automation programs, and the state’s premier workforce development agency operates an aviation training center at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.
AIDT is also expanding apprenticeship programs and supporting training initiatives at Flight Works Alabama, an aerospace education center located near the Airbus facility in Mobile that aims to inspire future aviation workers.
“As aerospace and aviation job opportunities continue to grow, we in Alabama have ‘re-imagined’ our workforce and education programs,” said Ed Castile, AIDT’s longtime director. “One example: In collaboration with Airbus and other aviation companies in the Mobile area, K-12 education, college/university partners and Commerce/AIDT, several new initiatives have been launched.
“Under the Flight Works banner, we’ve begun programs that develop teachers, STEAM camps and workshops, national certifications in industry-recognized certifications and programs designed to equip high school seniors for aviation careers,” he added.
In addition, the Alabama Community College System’s Alabama Aviation Center, which has several locations across the state, offers FAA-certified training in airframe and engine maintenance.