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Aerospace partnership creates consistent job placement

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

Finish an intensive eight-week course and be guaranteed a job paying $40,000 or more.

That's the result of a partnership between a technical college and the aerospace industry in North-Central West Virginia.

Pierpont Community & Technical College in Fairmont developed the Aircraft Structures Training Program with Lockheed Martin, Bombardier in Bridgeport and HQ Aero Management, an aerospace industry staffing company, said Paul Schreffler, Pierpont's vice president for workforce development. Lockheed Martin shared the curriculum it developed with Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Ga.

"It's designed to train entry-level workers in the fundamental skills to work in aircraft assembly," he said. "The training teaches students tool use, blueprint reading, fastener pattern layouts, solid rivet installations and fastener installation."

A maximum of 12 students can be enrolled in each eight-week class because of its hands-on nature. Two classes have already finished. All 24 completers were offered jobs, Schreffler said, and most of them accepted. A few returned to the mining industry.

The starting pay for graduates is $14 per hour, working with HQ Aero Management, with the opportunity to take a direct position with a local aerospace company and grow to $25 per hour over the course of the next 10 years, according to HQ Aero Management Vice President of U.S. Operations Ron Eagle. The higher pay is based on experience gained through the on-the-job training, he said, and each individual progresses individually, so it could take as long as 10 years to reach the higher level.  

"It is an expensive program," Schreffler said, noting tuition for the course at Chattahoochee Technical College costs $4,000. Students may be eligible for financial aid, such as workforce retraining assistance.

Pierpont received $140,000 from the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education, Schreffler said. The start-up funding paid for instructors, lab space and equipment, including hundreds of high-tech fasteners that cost between $5 and $10 each.

The third class convenes Jan. 10. More will be scheduled in the future, Schreffler said. 

Candidates must have a high school diploma or GED. They apply by submitting an application, resumé and cover letter. They must pass a drug test, a background check and take a skills assessment. No aviation experience is required, but preference is given to those with tools or mechanical assistance.

"We strongly encourage women to apply," Schreffler said. "Women have a lot of the skills it requires, including a great deal of attention to detail and precision. 

"It's not heavy physical work and it's not dirty work. There's a high level of safety."

Upon graduation, Schreffler said, "They are hired by the staffing company as a temporary employee." 

"They go into Bombardier and work alongside a licensed A&P (airframe and/or powerplant) mechanic, a process where they can gain the full license through on-the-job training," he said. "We have a two-year program that teaches that but this is an alternative route to getting that certification."

In time, workers become full-time employees of Bombardier, said plant manager Chad Hill.

"It has been very successful," he said. "I think the last class we brought everyone that graduated out of it into our company.

"There's a huge need in the industry for sheetmetal technicians," Hill said. "It's not uncommon for us to have up to 80 employees in our buildings, highly paid temporary contractors we have to bring in from around the country to fill the need we have for sheetmetal workers.

"We've probably seen our turnover rate drop 10 percent over the last three years because we focused on programs like sheetmetal training in an attempt to employ local workers who want to stay in West Virginia," he said.

Bombardier has also sent some of its current employees to Pierpont's training.

"We have a group we call open-close techs, who specialize in opening the aircraft up, removing panels, so other folks can get in and work," Hill said. "These guys are very good employees but their skill set limited them to that position. HQ Aero was able to pull some of those guys who showed abilities over several years and put them through the training and bring them back with an expanded skill set."

Schreffler said program completers can expect to retire from this career.

"It's a long-term job," Schreffler said. "It's not something that's here today and gone tomorrow. That industry has been around the airport there. There's continual need for people in that industry."