FAIRHOPE – Baldwin County high school students and parents stood around a partially disassembled small plane as Ken Callais described the career opportunities available maintaining such aircraft.
The Academy at the Fairhope Airport trains students for careers such as aviation, industrial maintenance, electrical and instrumentation, millwright and welding. The Academy is operated through a partnership by the Baldwin County School System and Coastal Alabama Community College On Feb. 27, the center held its annual open house for potential students.
Callais, an aviation instructor, pointed out one of the aircraft used by student mechanics. He pointed to the letter N at the beginning of the registration number on the fuselage.
“That N means its registered in the United States. Only a mechanic with an AP license can work on this. That’s federal law,” Callais said. “If Delta flies, which they do, from Atlanta to Gatwick or Heathrow in London, if that plane breaks, someone with an AP license has to fix it.”
He said the demand for mechanics is growing faster than training centers can prepare workers.
“Around here, and all across the world, the demand for aviation mechanics is exploding,” he said. “There’s not enough and we can’t produce enough, so the pay is going up and up.”
Mark Sloan, director of the Coastal Alabama Community College aviation program, said training centers graduate about 7,500 new mechanics a year, about 2,000 less than the total needed. He said that at some airlines, mechanics can earn more than $50 an hour after eight years.
Starting wages in this area are $20 to $23 an hour.
“It is insane what is being thrown at the aviation industry today,” Sloan said. “I’ve been in the industry for 35 years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The program allows students in the 10th, 11th and 12 grades to take two classes a year as part of their high-school curriculum. Students can also take another two classes a year during the summer if they want, Angie Dunnam with the CACC Career Education Dual Enrollment Program, said.
“Technically, dual enrollment is basically where students take college level classes, but they’re also earning elective credits at their high school, so it’s a two for one,” she told students at the open house. “You’ve got to be doing something at the high school, so why not do something that’s technically oriented?”
Dunnam said public high school students do not have to pay extra tuition for the program, but may have costs for safety items, such as welders’ hoods.
The program requires students to complete 15 classes. Participants who continue in the program after graduation in order to complete the requirements will pay CACC tuition rates.
Average wages for workers who complete the program and receive their certification can range from $41,000 for welders to $68,000 for aircraft mechanics, Dunnam said.
“The program helps prepare students for high-wage, high-demand careers in our region and right now they’re really booming,” she said. They’re in the areas that you have here, which are going to be aviation, industrial maintenance, electrical and instrumentation millwright and welding. We have employers begging us. We don’t have enough people to fill these slots.”
She said that while the program teaches high school students, the courses are college level and students have to be prepared to meet the academic demands.
“We want dedicated students who really understand what they’re getting into, because dual enrollment is dual enrollment,” Dunnam said. “It’s taught by college instructors and we don’t want students to get in over their heads.”
Students can begin the application process by going to the Baldwin County Board of Education website and finding The Academy under the Career and Technical Education section. After filling out the online application, students should bring the required forms to their high school counselor.
Dunnam said the deadline to apply for next year is May 1, but some schools may have earlier schedules. Callais said the program usually has a waiting list, so students should apply as soon as possible.