Students Hayden Farlow, left, and Joey Richard are part of a new aviation maintenance program at Baton Rouge Community College. (Photo by Don Kadair)
Two months before his graduation among the first cohort of BRCC’s new aviation maintenance program, 21-year-old Trevor Farwell drafted his résumé and posted it online in late May. The next morning—within less than 24 hours—his phone rang.
“I was sitting in class, and I got a call from Michigan,” Farwell recalls. “I answered, and they said, ‘We’ve got a job for you.’”
The caller was from Kalitta Air, a major cargo airline providing transportation worldwide. The company was on the hunt for aviation technicians and offering a generous deal to get them to Michigan. The starting salary would be $42,000 a year, with full benefits, and moving costs were covered.
It was a job opportunity even four-year college graduates struggle to find. It was also an open door to the big leagues, an opportunity to work with the commercial airline giants that make up Kalitta Air’s fleet.
“I opted to go with the big boys—the Boeing 747s—and go to Michigan,” Farwell says. “The pay was there, the benefits were there and the cost of living was there. My instructors said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t take this.’”
Farwell’s experience speaks to the job demand of a booming aviation industry and to the initial success of BRCC’s aviation maintenance program. The two-year program began in 2015, producing its first batch of five graduates this August. Six more will graduate in the spring, and seven students started this fall. Interest in the program is growing, says Aviation Department Chair Eric Kallio—not only among students, but also among employers.
“I can’t graduate these students fast enough. I have three employers lined up to come this fall and visit the program: one from St. Louis, one from Jacksonville, Florida, and one from Nashville. We have great feedback from industry.”
—Eric Kallio, aviation department chair, BRCC
“I can’t graduate these students fast enough,” Kallio says. “I have three employers lined up to come this fall and visit the program: one from St. Louis, one from Jacksonville, Florida, and one from Nashville. We have great feedback from industry.”
In 20 years, global airline fleets are expected to expand and modernize rapidly. As a result, Boeing’s 2016 Pilot & Technician Outlook projects the forecast demand for technicians over the next two decades will be 679,000 globally and 127,000 in the U.S. A shortage of aviation mechanics is predicted as demand outpaces supply by 2022, Forbes reports.
So the need is there, and the BRCC program is taking advantage of it. Aviation companies like Kalitta are looking for trained technicians that BRCC can supply. In return, these employers can provide solid, well-paying jobs. The median salary for aircraft technicians is $60,270 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Kallio sees an even greater purpose for the program down the road. As he continues to send graduates out, he expects the BRCC program to eventually make a name for itself and become a bargaining chip for the Capital Region to attract airlines and aviation business.
“I want to be able to say, ‘Look at what we have—a school whose grads are getting snatched up by companies across the country,’” Kallio says. “Right now we’re sending them out, but imagine if we could keep them here. I want to create that bargaining chip, so our airport and business leaders can go to airlines like Southwest and say, ‘You can come here. We have a capable, trained workforce.’”
Could his ambitious vision pan out? If so, it might take some time. Louisiana currently does not have a robust aviation industry. There are few local job opportunities for Kallio’s graduates. And training opportunities are sparse but growing. Besides Baton Rouge, Louisiana has only three other programs in Lafayette, Lake Charles and Shreveport. And the Federal Aviation Administration requires class sizes of no more than 25, so spots are limited.
Southeast Louisiana had no aviation technician programs before BRCC filled the void in 2015. The program was funded with a $1 million grant from the state’s Rapid Response fund, which supports in-demand workforce training to fill urgent market needs.
Employers are lining up to hire graduates of the program launched by BRCC’s Eric Kallio, but he’s anxious for the day when it’s used as a chip to bring the airline industry to Baton Rouge. (Photo by Don Kadair)
Students are trained at the BRCC Central campus, which features a 27,000-square-foot workshop. A donated helicopter and two Bonanza planes are lined up inside the shop, while a Cessna plane sits outside the building on a small strip of concrete. Seven aircraft engines are also housed inside the shop for students to work on.
The 21-month program is full-time, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Total tuition and fees cost about $11,000. After students complete the program, they must pass FAA licensing exams.
Kallio has visited other training schools and says the BRCC program is more selective and advanced than most. Last year 67 students expressed interest in the program, and the 20 who were selected had to take prerequisite tests. More than half could not pass the math portion, Kallio says, so the class dwindled to seven.
As one of three instructors, Kallio is a 22-year Army veteran who worked as a maintenance officer and test pilot, and earned his doctorate in business management with a focus on aviation. But he isn’t the only instructor with impressive credentials: Curtiss Johnston taught for eight years at the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest aviation school, before joining BRCC.
“I can tell you that the instruction we are giving our students is equal or exceeds that of Embry-Riddle,” Johnston says. “Our practical project equipment is not quite as elaborate as theirs but it’s more than adequate. This shows in the results of our students who have completed the course and taken the oral and practical exams for the FAA examiner.”
Not only is the training top notch, the students enjoy it. Farwell says he chose the aviation maintenance program after becoming disinterested with computer science at Southeastern Louisiana University. He wanted to work with his hands instead. The BRCC program proved a perfect match.
“The first day I was in love. It was hands-on right away,” Farwell says. “Within months, I was tearing motors apart and putting them back together.”
Joey Richard, who is in his fourth semester, says another perk of the program is interacting with employers who visit the school. He also enjoys the hands-on training and being able to work with aircraft in the shop. Richard spent five years in the Marines and worked on helicopters before enrolling in the BRCC program. His goal is a career in experimental aviation at an innovative company such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing.
“I want to work on the next wave of aircraft,” he says.
Aviation students like Richard can afford to have big aspirations for the future. That’s because the industry is full of intriguing and gainful job opportunities, and because the BRCC aviation maintenance program is properly preparing them for those jobs, developing their talent and showing it off to employers nationwide.
“Having been in aviation for 55 years,” Johnston says, “seeing what we are building and offering the students at BRCC makes me very excited and proud.”