With a growing enrollment outpacing space in its current facility, West Michigan Aviation Academy plans to expand to accommodate up to 600 students in Grand Rapids.
The project adds an additional 15,000-square-feet to the school, including an airplane hangar, and follows significant expansions in 2011 and 2012. Other features include additional classrooms, labs and collaborative workspace.
“We maxed out our capacity,” said Pat Cwayna, the charter high school’s CEO. “When we started the school, we operated out of an old office building with three classrooms for 80 students. (In 2014), it looks like we’ll hit an enrollment of at least 500 students.”
A number of factors suggest the expansion couldn’t come soon enough to help fill a growing global void of talent in the aviation and aerospace industries that analysts say could significantly impact airport management and commercial and freight carrier operations.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, in its most recent industry forecast, estimates that around the world, roughly one million new commercial airline pilots and maintenance technicians are needed through the year 2032. North America alone accounts for approximately 85,700 pilots and 97,900 technicians in the company’s estimate.
That has operations such as the West Michigan Aviation Academy (WMAA) and the Western Michigan University College of Aviation — which also has plans to expand — looking to fill the gap.
“The literature is calling for a (significant) number of pilots to enter the workforce for many years out,” Cwayna said. “The need for pilots worldwide is going to be huge with baby boomers retiring, not to mention the four to five people on the ground needed to support a (single) airplane mechanically. What we’re doing is just good timing.”
Safety concerns are also widespread in the industry, said Dave Powell, dean of the college of aviation at WMU.
“The need for pilots, mechanics and people to manage them is probably the highest it’s ever been in aviation,” said Powell, a former chief pilot and flight manager for commercial carriers and veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “In the ’60s, there was a big need for mechanics, but this (need) is probably even larger.”
To that end, WMU is looking to bolster its top-rated program as other leading aviation schools such as Purdue University and Southern Illinois University do the same, Powell said.
In its December meeting, the WMU Board of Trustees approved a proposed $19 million capital outlay request for the expansion of the school’s aviation program located at the W.K. Kellogg Airport in Battle Creek. The project is one of the university’s top priority requests.
Primarily, the expansion would go toward brick-and-mortar facilities that would add additional classroom space, labs and work facilities, Powell said.
Most recently, the school invested in its simulation facilities and technology, a project that is expected to be completed by September.
The need to expand follows a 12-percent enrollment growth in 2012 and an 8-percent gain in enrollment last year, a trend Powell expects to continue.
“The $19 million is hopefully just the first phase of the expansion,” Powell said. “We’re packed and we need this just to handle new students coming in.”
A second $32 million phase is on the books and would facilitate the aviation school’s full build out into a complete campus, Powell said.
The school currently has 750 students enrolled, and Powell said he could expect to see that number double in the next five to seven years.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm with everything coming together right now,” he said. “Everyone has known this talent shortage has been coming for long time, but it’s difficult to see how it will continue to play out as the economy goes up and down, but it seems like everything is finally here.”
In Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Aviation Academy is also bursting at the seams with an enrollment of 412 students as parents continue to look for more specialized education programs for their children, Cwayna said. The school’s expansion will allow the academy to support a maximum of 600 students when it’s complete and is the final expansion for the foreseeable future, he said.
The project will cost approximately $2 million and is being paid for through loans from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation.
Specialty schools like the WMAA are the wave of the future, Cwayna said.
The school’s expansion isn’t just coincidence, either. Graduating students with a path to in-demand careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is getting a strong push at both the national and state levels, Cwayna said.
“We’re a very different school and we’re unique with an engineering focus,” Cwayna said of WMAA. “The climate for what parents want for their children is changing from what’s been offered in the past.”