BATTLE CREEK — The $22 million expansion of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation at W.K. Kellogg Airport will include many visible signs of growth.
Even so, Dave Powell, the dean of the aviation school, said he is focusing on an area of growth that’s less obvious: About 7 percent of all pilots and airline mechanics in the United States are people of color, and of that percentage about 2.5 percent are African American.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a pilot or a mechanic,” he said. “Whatever your race or sex is, it truly doesn’t matter. We really want to be diversified.”
WMU relocated its College of Aviation from Kalamazoo to Battle Creek in 1997. During the past five years, the college’s enrollment has increased by 35 percent, bringing the total number of students to 1,000. Powell said this uptick is reflective of an increasing demand for pilots, mechanics and managers in the aviation industry.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. currently has 159,000 active airline transport pilots. To meet growing demand, the FAA estimates that an average of 87 new airline pilots would need to be trained every day for the next 20 years.
The need also comes as a wave of pilot retirements is set to take place over the next 20 years, at the same time the flying public continues to grow, Powell said.
While the airline industry is expected to hire more than 317,000 employees by 2022, the low representation of women and non-white men in the sector is projected to continue, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
This remains a concern for Powell, who said 33 percent of the total number of students in the College of Aviation represent different races and ethnicities.
“We recruit from all over,” Powell said. “We have a lot of students from Michigan: 65 percent of our incoming class this fall are in-state and the rest could be from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Korea or just about anywhere.”
However, the college struggles to attract students from its own backyard.
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“Battle Creek has such a diverse community, but we get very, very few students from Battle Creek in our program,” Powell said. “We have struggled and struggled with this. We now have anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 students from first grade up to middle school who visit our program in the summertime. We give tours here from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. I have students on standby to do this.”
Despite this exposure to the industry, people still don’t appreciate that they have opportunities to get into aviation, nor do they understand the significance of the program, Powell said.
“There are over 250 aviation programs in the United States and we’re the third largest,” he said. “I’m hoping that when people see the new building, they’ll maybe have an interest in walking through the door and give us the opportunity to explain how they could be a part of the program.”
With the expansion, the College of Aviation will be able to double its enrollment, according to Powell.
Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, said the expansion is a continuation of the work his organization started since the College of Aviation relocated to Battle Creek.
“We have been behind the aviation school since day one and we recognize the critical role it has played and will continue to play in the future of our city and surrounding communities,” Sobieralski said. “Our partnership with the College of Aviation and WMU is an example of what is possible when stakeholders unite behind a common mission to strengthen and grow an already successful program.”
University officials cited growth in student demand over the past five years as a key driver in the move to add a new 67,000-square-foot building at the airport for classroom space, a computer room and a state-of-the-art simulation center. The facility, expected to be completed by the summer of 2020, also will include a research center and student briefing rooms, as well as faculty office space, a cafe, amenities and upgrades in technology and laboratories.
The College of Aviation expects to add approximately 25 new positions as part of the expansion; it currently employs 150 faculty and staff.
“I don’t want uncontrolled growth that doesn’t continue to deliver the quality,” Powell said. “When a parent sends their child to us, they’re giving us the most valuable thing they have, and then it’s their money. I want them to understand that I have that appreciation.
“I tell that to all of the prospective students and parents. I make no apology for being a parent, but I’m not trying to take the parents’ place to hold their kids accountable and have them get to class. My job is to help any young person who wants to get a great education to be successful.”
Powell’s no-nonsense approach can be traced back to his 14-year career in the military, followed by 18 years as a pilot with United Airlines, where he hired pilots and mechanics and was an instructor at the company’s training center. The experience gave him a level of institutional knowledge that’s not always common at other aviation schools, he said.
“I’m the only ex-airline executive to run an aviation school,” Powell said. “My family came here from Florida for what we thought would be two or three years. We fell in love with the place. This little college has changed the way aviation is trained.”
WMU is funding the expansion internally and with a $15 million grant from the state of Michigan.
The greatest percentage of students in the program go to work for the airlines, followed by corporate flight departments and the military.
Moreover, the ability to train students for careers in the airline industry is another way to diversify the economy in Battle Creek and increase WMU’s educational capability in the city, Powell said.
“This is the third busiest airport in Michigan and we do 85 percent of all flight activity here,” he said. “It’s perfect for training. I couldn’t tell you of a better place to be teaching.”