July 5, 2008

Degrees Stay Here: Students Will Be Able to Finish Ivy Tech Program in Fort Wayne

By Bob Caylor, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Jul. 5--Five years after it began, a program for training federally certified aircraft mechanics in Fort Wayne has reached an important milestone: Students will be able to finish their associate degrees here instead of somewhere else.

For mechanically talented students, maintaining and repairing aircraft can be an alluring job prospect. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual earnings of aircraft mechanics in Indiana total $57,200.

"We are the only one in the state, and one of the very few in the country, to offer it to high school students," said Richard Emmons, vice president of airport development for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, a key distinction that helps the program succeed.

Although about 2,700 such mechanics work in the state, according to the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, retirements and demand from other industries are depleting the trade.

In a report for Ivy Tech, the Innovation Center projected that between 1,000 and 2,000 more air mechanics would be needed between 2006 and 2011.

Rising expectations are creating a stronger demand for mechanics certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Years ago, Emmons said, a single FAA-certified mechanic might supervise an entire team of mechanics who weren't certified. "Now a lot of airlines don't want anyone touching their aircraft unless they're certified," he said.

Many local institutions cooperated in building and funding for the program, including Ivy Tech, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance and the city of Fort Wayne.

"They really showed how the community can come together for a project," Emmons said.

It began in 2003, when the Anthis Career Center began offering the program through a contract with the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. Initially, classes were taught at Kitty Hawk's facility at the Fort Wayne International Airport. Emmons said, however, that location put high school students from throughout Allen and eastern Whitley counties at a disadvantage because neither school-bus nor Citilink routes could take students to the airport.

After the Pittsburgh school withdrew from the arrangement, Ivy Tech took it over.

Beginning this fall, Ivy Tech will offer instruction in both power plants and airframes, allowing each entering class of 20 to 25 students to complete their associate's degree here. The intention all along has been to create a highly skilled workforce to help attract aircraft-maintenance companies.

Pinnacle Airlines, which has hired mechanics who started in the Fort Wayne program, has taken an even bigger stake in it. Bill Terhune, chair of Ivy Tech's aviation program, said Pinnacle has hired three students for lower-skill positions -- one working in the parts room, two cleaning aircraft -- who haven't finished their training.

The benefits are obvious -- it gives them an in with a prospective employer and lets them see what the fast-paced, higher pressure work of an airline mechanic is like. But it's good for Pinnacle, too, he said, because it helps the company grow its own talent at home.

"It's a great partnership," said Terhune.

As Emmons pointed out, what's good for Pinnacle has benefits beyond its employees. Because Pinnacle services planes based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, its presence here helped initiate service between Fort Wayne and the Twin Cities.

"We wouldn't have one without the other," Emmons said.

The program isn't just for teens and adults fresh out of high school. Terhune said the 14 students in an evening class for adults range from 21 to 68 years old. Several have bachelor's degrees, and two have master's degrees. And the program isn't done growing.

Ivy Tech wants to build a 30,000-square-foot facility in the next few years where all the air-maintenance instruction can take place. Terhune's confident about the prospects for the maintenance program, which costs students about $10,000 in tuition and fees, much less than similar programs in the state.

As the school creates a deeper pool of talented workers, Fort Wayne is better positioned to attract more aircraft-maintenance companies. As those well-paying employers land here, they in turn make Fort Wayne a more appealing spoke in airlines' service networks.

"I use the school on a daily basis when I'm talking to airlines," Emmons said.


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Copyright (c) 2008, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Ind.

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