A flight plan for high-tech economic development

Training southern Arizona’s workforce for high-technology jobs that our region and state will require to compete economically is a priority for Pima Community College. Some 26 million U.S. jobs require high-level knowledge in a STEM field – science, technology, engineering or mathematics — and U.S. community colleges award more than one-half of all postsecondary STEM degrees.

Last week I had the honor of testifying before the Arizona Legislature’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, chaired by Rep. Jeff Dial. [Video of my testimony is available here.] Arizona’s lawmakers have a duty to ensure that the state appropriates money in ways that offer the greatest return on investment. To make the case that allotting STEM funding to PCC will invigorate pathways to student success and economic development, I told the legislators about our Aviation Technology program. It is a model employer-educator partnership that pays tangible benefits to our students and the industry.

One of the trainings PCC first offered in 1969, our program is rigorous, and holds students to the industry’s highest standards. We offer an Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Technology degree and certificates for direct employment in Structural Repair, Avionics, and Airframe and Powerplant. I conveyed to the legislators that our program is designed to have the industry’s look, feel and function. Our students take 20 to 26 credit hours of coursework during a semester. They attend school eight hours a day, five days a week, with completion of programs taking between 19 and 27 months, under the direction of top-quality faculty and dedicated administrative support staff.

Our industry partners provide phenomenal support for our programs, including funding for scholarships. Plus, we are one of only two U.S. educational institutions receiving two aircraft donations from FedEx. Both are Boeing 727s, making us one of the few U.S. programs providing hands-on training on commercial and regional jets. We listen to our partners so that we can quickly and precisely align with industry needs, standards and trends. The program’s advisory committee includes leaders of more than one dozen companies.

With industry and educators working together, the outcomes for the students are excellent. We awarded 110 certificates and degrees in 2012, with 89 percent receiving grades of A, B or C. Moreover, in our March 2013 cohort of 25 graduates, 21 received job offers with an entry-level wage ranging between $16 and $18.75 an hour, with ample opportunities for advancement.

Steve Pagnucco, the general manager of Universal Avionics, also appeared before the committee last week, and acknowledged the role that PCC plays in supplying his firm with qualified workers. The aviation sector’s need for talent will continue to grow nationally and in the state. Pilot and Technician Outlook estimates 98,000 additional aviation technicians will be needed across North America over the next 20 years. In Arizona, 25 percent of the state’s 17,500 civil aviation workers will reach retirement age in the next two years.

In a December 2013 report, the Manufacturing Institute notes that “talent management shortfalls’’ are one of the biggest threats to the country’s continued leadership in the aircraft industry. PCC’s Aviation Technology program has proven it can meet the challenge by sending qualified employees into the industry. Our goal is to expand the program’s instructional capacity by an additional 25 students to meet entry-level employment needs of area businesses, and add equipment to keep our training on the leading edge of the industry. With the support of the state, we can do more to provide the high-skill jobs that will be the engine of economic vitality in our community.

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