Workforce shortages’ cascading effects on air industry

Boom Supersonic is building its Overture supersonic planes, but it needs the workforce to do so. (Photo: Boom Sonic)

Workforce shortages in the aviation and aerospace industry — from small business manufacturers to airline maintenance crews — can have a significant impact on areas such as safety, availability of commercial flights, national security, innovation and local economies. A House Small Business subcommittee last week heard from industry representatives on how providing more training opportunities, such as apprenticeships developed in partnership with community colleges, could help to replenish the workforce pipeline.

Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which represents more than 300 aerospace and defense companies ranging from family-run businesses to multinational corporations, said during an Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development Subcommittee hearing on May 12 that there are several ways Congress could address these needs. They include: investing more in STEM education, reskilling current industry employees for new technologies, enhancing training efforts to expand talent pools, and increasing diversity and expanding equity and inclusion efforts within the aerospace and defense (A&D) workforce.

Fanning said Congress should increase federal support for apprenticeships and career technical education. He cited as an example a unique apprenticeship that AIA-member Certified Aviation Services (CAS) launched with San Bernardino Valley College in California. Through the program, students work on various commercial aircraft projects, from sheet metal to building avionic technology, and other necessary technical training skills needed to attain an airframe and powerplant mechanics license. Fanning explained in his written testimony that the students also delve into routine and non-routine maintenance on a variety of commercial aircraft including 737, 757 and 787 planes.

“This apprenticeship program allows community college students to develop and grow into high-salary careers in the world of large aircraft projects while CAS develops a continuous pipeline of prospective future employees,” Fanning said. “The success of CAS’s innovative program so far allowed them to start expanding the program to community colleges in Alabama and Nevada. With the help of additional federal and state support, successful programs like this one could continue to expand nationwide, creating a diverse next-generation talent for the A&D industry.”

Other areas to consider

Fanning also encouraged Congress to think about establishing a program where activities conducted by contractors to support STEM education be considered as allowable community service activities for the purposes of determining the allowability of cost on a government contract. He cited as an example a program involving BAE Systems, which partnered with My Turn, a nonprofit in New Hampshire that helps underrepresented youth start careers in advanced manufacturing through financial assistance, career coaching and support services. Since the partnership started, more than 40 My Turn participants have graduated from the Microelectronics Boot Camp at Nashua Community College, a 10-week course that prepares students for entry-level advanced manufacturing roles, Fanning said.

Congress should also reform the Federal Work-Study program to reach more students from low-income backgrounds, particularly those at community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and other minority-serving institutions, Fanning added. He said the reforms should include helping students access on- and off-campus work experiences that align with their career paths.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pennsylvania) focused her questions on making sure that such opportunities include getting more women into these fields, which have traditionally been male-heavy. Fanning said AIA is doubling down on its efforts in mentoring, paths for development, and recruitment from different areas to find talent. For example, AIA recently partnered with Girl Scouts on a rocketry challenge to get more girls interested in STEM through hands-on projects.

Fanning also noted that it is important to reach students and families starting in elementary school to let them explore potential career options and what education would be required for those paths.

Small business challenges

The subcommittee also heard from officials at small businesses, which are the lifeblood of the industry. They comprise more than 90% of businesses in airline transportation, air transport support and aviation manufacturing, according to the subcommittee. For example, Boeing’s supplier network includes 12,000 active suppliers, with more than 6,000 of those being small and diverse businesses.

Patriot Machine in St. Charles, Missouri, supplies parts and assemblies to the large aircraft manufacturers, but it has struggled in recent years to find enough skilled workers to fill jobs. Judy Burns and her husband started the business in their home garage more than 30 years ago and currently employ 160 workers. It expanded recently by adding a new advanced manufacturing facility, but finding workers in another issue.

The company has decided to train new employees on the job because it couldn’t find workers with the high-level skills needed. But this is expensive, especially if new hires leave because they are uncertain about their own career paths, Burns told the House panel. She added that she would like to see an increase in federal funding for technical education and community college programs with a technical focus that would help replenish the workforce pipeline for small companies like hers.

Implementing innovations

The workforce shortage is also affecting innovations in the industry. Boom Supersonic in Centennial, Colorado, is working on technology to make the flight from New York to London in 3.5 hours. But the company needs an educated and skilled workforce, said founder and CEO Blake Scholl. He noted that a critical lesson the company learned through the pandemic is the importance of domestic manufacturing and its supply chain. Boom recently announced a significant expansion in Greensboro, North Carolina, where it will build a facility to manufacture its first commercial airliner. It plans to create more than 2,400 jobs over the next decade.

“In order to prepare the local workforce for this opportunity, we are performing outreach to technical colleges and four-year programs to develop programs teaching the requisite skills for jobs in supersonic manufacturing,” Scholl said in his written testimony.

Beginning in 2023, as part of its Emerging Talent program, Boom Supersonic will launch an internship and apprenticeship program at its production facility in North Carolina — specifically for students who attend university, community college or technical school in North Carolina.

“We are designing experiential learning programs that include custom onboarding, lunch-and-learn sessions and a performance feedback system,” Scholl said. “Over the next 10 years, we plan to create more than 200 of these opportunities.”

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.