News Column

Ivy Tech, Airport Collaborate to Develop Local Workforce

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Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast student Joseph Gross starts some of his days at 2 a.m., when he begins his runs for a small food distribution business he owns. After he finishes runs around noon, he has just a few hours before he heads to class until 9 p.m.

Gross is a student in Ivy Tech's aviation maintenance technology program, which moved this year into a new building at Smith Field Airport. Gross became a student in the program last spring when the program was located off Ludwig Road.

At the previous building, with just two classrooms, the program couldn't offer the number and flexibility of classes that students like Gross needed. With a bigger building and more options, Gross hopes to finish the program in one year.

"There's no way I could have finished (in a year) at the old building," he said. "Having more classrooms has opened up the schedule. Now we have more options."

Ivy Tech and Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority officials hope the new location will better serve Gross and other students, to graduate more students with certifications and to create a workforce in the area that will attract airlines to the north-side airport.

Expansion increases options

Students arrived in the new Ivy Tech Aviation Center, 405 W. Cook Road, for the first day of classes Monday. The building replaces the former home, a site that Ivy Tech quickly outgrew.

Last week aviation technology program chair Sheena Nolin said the program required three additional adjunct professors to help with the influx of students. About 75 are already enrolled this year, which doesn't include the 18-20 high school students who will take classes in the program half day. Last spring the program enrolled 72 students total.

The new building has space for as many as 200 students if the program continues to expand, with as many computer labs as classrooms in the previous building.

Ivy Tech owns the building, but rents the land from the airport as part of a 50-year lease.

The location was chosen mostly because it is more convenient, with access to public transportation for students.

The program at its former building was rife with problems including low graduation rates, and even the students who graduated were unable to pass tests to receive the required certifications. Classroom space was inadequate with just two classrooms for 75 students.

"It caused a scheduling nightmare, which is why students couldn't get through the program," Nolin said.

The program is at least 5 years old, Nolin said. In her year and a half leading the program, just 20 students have graduated and received some type of certification. After program completion, students have the option to achieve two different certification options or can try for both.

The half-day program for high school students only allows enough time to complete training for one of the two certifications, but Nolin said about 75 percent of high school students continue training to become certified in both areas.

The program demands a minimum of two years, or the equivalent of 1,900 hours, "depending on student time and dedication," Nolin said.

Program entices students

The airport is pushing Ivy Tech to get students through the program more quickly, focusing on students who are serious about becoming certified.

Patrick Dooley, vice president of airport development with Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, said the changes in the program will make the pipeline of workers from the program stronger. With the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM -- careers, he believes more students will be interested in this type of career.

Northrop High School senior Marq Olinger, 17, likes the opportunity to get hands-on experience as a high school student enrolled in the program through Anthis Career Center.

"I've always really loved planes...and I love building things, so why not try it?" he said.

Olinger said he plans to receive both certifications and is also working on his private pilot's license.

"This (program) is a great jump start...you can get a very good job. That's what I'm hoping to do," he said.

The program is the only of its kind in the area, since a similar program offered in Terra Haute recently closed. The nearest program is in Indianapolis, which Dooley said charges significantly more for tuition.

"The program here is a great value for your money," Dooley said. "I won't be surprised if we get people coming into the market."

Nineteen-year-old Chris Grover is in his second year in Ivy' Tech's program and hopes to be halfway through by the end of the semester. He said he's wanted to work with airplanes since kindergarten.

Grover is originally from southern Illinois and moved to Fort Wayne specifically for the Ivy Tech program after hearing about it from his dad.

Plans to boost development

Student Joseph Gross said there are practical dreams and there are crazy dreams. His practical dream is to graduate from the program, receive both certifications and work in the area as an airplane mechanic. His crazy dream is to fly every day.

Gross already has his private pilot license and would like to receive his commercial pilot license, a dream that can be time-consuming and expensive, he said.

In the meantime, Gross said he will likely gain some experience as an airplane mechanic before opening his own business to buy planes, fix them up and sell them.

Dooley said students like Gross who want to stay in the area will benefit the local economy.

"It's jobs. I think the myth out there is that these are only people who can work on aircraft," he said.

The reality is that a small percentage of technicians end up in aviation. Workers could potentially work for local companies like ITT Exelis and Northrop Grumman, he said.

But aviation industry reports reveal these workers will be in high demand. According to Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company and manufacturer of commercial planes, by 2030 the aviation industry will require 650,000 new airline maintenance technicians and 460,000 new airline pilots.

The industry has experienced a shortage of workers and pilots because of 9/11, and a 2010 Aviation Week Workforce Study estimates that by 2014, 25 percent of the aerospace nonexempt touch labor workforce will be eligible to retire.

The building and the expanded program in Fort Wayne is part of a five-year strategy, with the ultimate goal of making the Fort Wayne airport a hub by attracting more airlines. To achieve this the area must attract an on-site maintenance and repair operator to perform aircraft checks and regular maintenance and repairs.

But without a workforce, an operator won't consider moving locally, Dooley said.

After resolving the program's space problem and once the school turns out certified technicians, Dooley said the next step will be to build a hangar at the airport. Airlines are using bigger planes, ones that the airport currently can't accommodate because it doesn't have a big enough hangar.

Dooley said that step is still about five years away.

But keeping the workforce in the area could present a challenge. Grover said after he graduates he plans on moving out West to Colorado "where the scenery is better."

Olinger is also looking at heading overseas where demand for aviation workers is just as high as in the United States, according to a Boeing report.

Dooley said currently no incentives are in place to keep workers local, but it's something the airport is exploring.

"That's a common problem for any (aviation) program," he said.

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