BATTLE CREEK — Through a new partnership with one of the world’s largest commercial airline carriers, Western Michigan University hopes to become a premier institution for training aircraft maintenance personnel.
In mid May, the WMU College of Aviation in Battle Creek announced that it was one of 38 institutions in the country to be awarded a partnership with Atlanta-based Delta Airlines Inc.
The partnership will allow for direct dialogue and hands-on training between Delta Airlines technicians, WMU aviation educators and the roughly 100 students currently enrolled in the program, according to Dr. Raymond Thompson, associate dean for the College of Aviation.
“We’re hoping for some degree of technical support — as well as their feedback into our curriculum — so we can make sure we’re providing the best education within what (the Federal Aviation Administration rules) require as a minimum,” Thompson told MiBiz. “What in addition do we need to be offering to make sure our graduates are job-ready for Delta or any other airline?”
Aviation in Michigan is a $20 billion industry, according to statistics from the FAA. Because of that, WMU students are finding success with placement in both commercial and general aviation companies, as well as with manufacturing firms such as Duncan Aviation, which has a large facility in Battle Creek near WMU’s College of Aviation campus, Thompson said.
“We routinely have air carriers coming in to recruit pilots,” he said. “In the last year, we’ve seen a number of carriers coming in specifically looking for technicians. That’s new. Obviously, I’m happy about that. For every five pilots, we need six technicians and we’re just not doing enough nationally to produce enough technicians.”
Thompson said graduates of the program will enter the industry with a “broad-based” and “well-rounded” education, adding that partnerships with higher education can drastically reduce the amount of training an airline like Delta would need to offer once they hire a new technician.
“Typically, why someone like Delta is looking to have the input and influence in partnering with schools is to ensure we’re offering content that’s also applicable to a transport category aircraft,” Thompson said, adding that airlines often train new hires for a period of 12-14 months. “They’re hoping to lessen the time for on-the-job training at the air carrier through partnerships and helping us teach more transport-level content than general aviation content.”
Delta Airlines did not respond to a request for comment at the time this report went to press.
AN INDUSTRY IN NEED
As in other legacy industries, companies in the aviation sector are experiencing a large shortage of workers.
According to the 2016 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook, the aviation industry by 2035 will need to supply more than 2 million new aviation personnel, which includes 617,000 commercial airline pilots, 679,000 maintenance technicians, and 814,000 cabin crew.
“Meeting this demand will require innovative solutions — focused on educational outreach and career pipeline programs — to inspire the next generation of pilots, technicians, and cabin crew,” according to the Boeing report. “New technologies, devices, and training methods will be needed to meet a wide range of learning styles. The growing diversity of aviation personnel will also require instructors to have cross-cultural and cross-generational skills to engage tomorrow’s workforce.”
While the solutions Boeing recommends seem to be borne out in Delta’s Airline Maintenance Technician training program that’s set to launch at WMU in September, Thompson said he’s not aware of any other commercial carriers offering a similar program at any scale.
Aside from the Delta partnership, WMU’s College of Aviation continues to expand its reach nationally.
Earlier this year, the university got final approvals from the state of Florida to begin offering classes in aviation maintenance and pilot training in Punta Gorda.
The decision to expand to the Sunshine State largely stemmed from winter weather conditions in Michigan making it difficult to offer year-round training, according to Thompson.
“It’s a new venture for us, moving into Florida. But we see an opportunity for some of our Battle Creek students to spend a semester studying in Florida,” Thompson said. “Some of the Florida students may come study in Battle Creek as well. The goal is for Florida to support Battle Creek. We’re not looking to diminish our operations here in any way.”