Bootstraps!

Many mechanics are not aware that both the FAA and industry folks are currently reviewing the Part 147 Aviation Maintenance Technician School rule. This project ends in December and then its findings go into FAA rulemaking. The joint industry and FAA project is designed to bring A&P training into the 21st century. My best guess is the new Part 147 requirements will be out by January 2011.

I know what you are thinking. “Big deal! I got my tickets, why should I worry about my old A&P school and some future FAA rulemaking?”

The state of Part 147 schools
You should worry because we are losing A&P schools faster than at any time in the past. According to the FAA’s VIS record-keeping system, the number of “active” Part 147 schools dropped from 165 in January 2007 to 128 in July 2008. This is a net loss of 37 schools over an 18-month period. Anytime a profession loses its most valued resources, its centers of training, over time it will cease being a profession and become downgraded to a job that anyone off the street can do. Imagine the impact on aviation safety when that day happens.

I have been an A&P mechanic since 1968 and I tend to worry about such things that threaten my chosen profession. So, armed with a simple 10 question survey, I went out to the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) convention in Las Vegas in April of this year. After I conducted my simple survey of Part 147 school representatives, I discovered two facts. First, all Part 147 schools that are privately owned and operated are doing well to extremely well, with high student populations and their bottom lines in the black.

On the other hand, many state/publically run schools, with tuitions that cost thousands of dollars less than the private Part 147 schools, are in trouble. Student populations are low, they are laying off instructors, and their bottom line is in the red. If the tuition costs are less, and the instructors and facilities are comparable to private industry schools, why is there a decline when 100 percent of their student graduates are placed in aviation jobs?

Still a need for mechanics
During my survey I asked representatives from state-run schools why. The fast and easy reply I got was the airlines are in deep trouble and potential students read everyday about airline lay-offs, buy-outs, price of fuel, and mergers. So why should the schools try to sugarcoat the profession if the industry is going to hell in a hand basket and no students show up at their door?

I had to agree with them that our airlines are basket cases right now — but there is another side of the aviation maintenance coin.

There is a fast growing job market in aviation maintenance that goes begging for mechanics. The large Part 145 repair stations like Falcon Jet and Gulfstream need mechanics right now. Also, a lot of mechanics in today’s workforce are part of the baby-boomer population. This means that retirements will increase over the next five years. Don’t forget, manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed/Martin are going to continue to need well-trained aviation maintenance professionals.

What’s the problem?
So besides the troubles with the airlines, what else is a contributing factor to the decline of state/publically run Part 147 schools? Of the school representatives that I talked to, I have identified three problem areas on why these schools are failing.

There was a universal complaint from the Part 147 instructors who I interviewed at the conference that their state/public school administrators did not understand what needs to be in place for the Part 147 course to be successful. They also believed that their administrators had a bias, be it real or imagined, against teaching blue-collar courses because these “dirty hands” courses did not fit into a traditional “college” environment. There were also complaints that Part 147 instructors were not considered to be on the same par as those who taught traditional “college” courses. Obviously, this is a morale issue, meaning that both sides are at fault and that both sides had better find a solution.

There was no dedicated Part 147 advertising budget at any of the state/public schools, according to the school representatives. Their only advertising consisted of word of mouth, a blip on the college’s web site, and making visits to local high schools on career day.

None of the state/public schools had a tactical or strategic plan in place. A tactical plan is what you are going to do in the current fiscal year; a strategic plan is based on a five-year timeline. Both plans should be constantly updated.

The short and thick of it is this: The state/publically run Part 147 schools from my survey that were in trouble had the same profile: low morale, no advertising budget, and no plan — no wonder they are dropping like flies.

Now what? Should we just turn out the lights and close the door on state/public Part 147 schools and hand the keys over to private industry? No. There is plenty of room for both public and private schools to thrive and prosper in the Part 147 school environment.

But the question is, “Can state/public Part 147 schools meet the challenge?” The answer is yes, and it is happening right now.

Northland Community and Technical College
Enter from stage right, Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC). The college is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Its Part 147 school is located at the Thief River Falls regional airport about 70 miles south of the Canadian border.

Right, some of you are thinking “hick school,” but you would be dead wrong. Take my word for it because I have been there. NCTC’s facility is one of the finest Part 147 schools in the country. It has a total of 85,000 square feet. The large, six-story heated hangar has more than 35,000 square feet and it contains a DC-9, a B-727 up on jacks, and 20 other aircraft from helicopters to fixed-wing single- and multi-engine aircraft. The classrooms and shops are state-of-the-art and it would take $16 million to replace it today.

But in the fall semester of 2007 this Part 147 school that was designed for more than 150 students had a total of 25 full-time students and no part-time ones. In October of that same year, the school president had no choice but to put the Part 147 school on suspended status because it was hemorrhaging money to the tune of $620,000 over the previous fiscal year. In academic talk, when a course is suspended, it means as soon as the 25 students graduate, the school, the facility, and administrative staff are on the street. The school was suffering from the three major problem areas I mentioned: low morale, no advertising budget, and no plan. Worst of all, there was no hope.

Can you possibly imagine the sense of failure that everyone connected with the school from the president right on down to the last one hired must have felt? No one wants to fail, especially when they have a world-class facility. The school had all the exuberance you would find in a fall-out shelter.

Power of public opinion
Then a strange thing happened. Those 25 students, led by a lady student mechanic, got mad. They decided that the school would not close. They said to hell with the odds. They wrote letters, they contacted the local newspapers, and they went on TV. They got the city of Thief River Falls on their side, contacted their state legislators, and through the force of public opinion, asked for and got a review of the decision to close down the school.

The review was done and no one could fault the president’s original decision to close the school due to insufficient funds. Numbers don’t lie, especially those written in red ink. But when politics come into the picture, trust me — that world is not the same reality that you and I live in. Faced with an aroused public opinion, the Chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities granted a financial booster shot that sustained the program as the college planned for its survival. The booster-shot was a $100,000 Band-Aid over a sucking chest wound. The school was still bleeding money but the extra money eliminated the need for a toe tag. It bought time!

Under the president’s direction, the administration, faculty, and administrative folks got together to solve the problems. This was not easy. At the first meeting there were a lot of bruised egos in the room on all sides. But they persevered because failure was not an option. An advertising plan was created, along with a new Part 147 school CD to send to prospective students. This was done using existing school resources. A separate college web site was developed and dedicated to advertise just the Part 147 school.

Prospective students now get to talk to a real live person instead of a computer menu. The school was cleaned from top to bottom. People smelled a new beginning in the air. Together, they looked at their expenses and spent some of the $100,000 on making repairs and installing energy-saving devices like programmable thermostats and ceiling fans in the hangars to reduce fixed costs. They brought the students into the process of saving the school by encouraging them to network with high school students. They sold scrap aircraft parts to generate more money for repairs and advertising. For the first time ever, they created an alumni association to get the word out. The most important change of all was the creation of an interim dean position for the school, and along with that, responsibility for developing a one-year tactical and five-year strategic plan.

Did it work?
As of this date, the school now has a total of 41 students. Considering the school was on the ropes, it’s a big improvement from the original 25 but still quite a distance from the three-year target goal of 150 students. But their morale is good. They are now letting the world know the school is open and ready to train mechanics. Most importantly, they have a plan — so don’t count them out. If things go as they planned, the NCTC facility at Thief River Falls will become one of the premier Part 147 schools in the country in less than five years’ time.

In summary, NCTC folks are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They will serve as the model on what can happen when a state/publically run school has a will and a way to do the impossible.
Many other state/public schools in trouble will watch NCTC’s progress with interest. Some schools will cheer them on. Others will hope that they fail in order to justify their own self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Either way the winds blow, NCTC is standing alone in a fight of a lifetime. I envy them.

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