Oklahoma's Aerospace Industry Needs More Skilled Labor

Most of the work done in Oklahoma is maintenance, repair and overhaul of older aircraft.


Schools in Oklahoma can't train aerospace workers fast enough to fill the ranks at the state's growing aerospace companies.

Industry leaders gathered with CareerTech educators last Friday to discuss ways to address a shortage of skilled workers. As the aerospace industry sees an upswing, the need for sheet metal workers and aircraft technicians is growing. But when the need for workers outpaces the supply, industry growth stops.

"We're turning work away because we don't have enough quality manpower to get it done," said Anita Brown, AAR human resources director. "That's how desperate we are."

Aerospace companies are in need of sheet metal workers who repair aircraft structures and drive rivets into to airplanes. Most of the work done in Oklahoma is maintenance, repair and overhaul of older aircraft.

Tinker Air Force Base's main job is to repair military planes and keep them in the sky longer. In Tulsa, business focuses on keeping commercial airplanes in good shape.

The increased demand for workers is going unmet. Most jobs at Oklahoma's aerospace companies require skilled training. Only a handful require a college degree; most jobs start at about $11.50 an hour.

In some cases, companies recruit workers and give them on-the-job training. With high demand for skilled aerospace workers, turnover is constant.

"There aren't very many places to get skilled workers," said Chris Russo, with Pro-Fab.

Training centers in Oklahoma City can't graduate students fast enough. Most aviation-related programs have waiting lists of six months; in some cases it's a year.

Most of the aircraft maintenance technician graduates from Metro Tech Aviation Career Center and Gordon Cooper Technology Center go to work at Tinker. The Air Force base needs 150 FAA-certified mechanics a year, said Al Rich, deputy director of the 76th Maintenance Wing.

Increasing training capacity would require additional funds, educators say. Metro-Tech has asked the Oklahoma Legislature to allocate $907,000 to turn hangar space into classrooms and labs and hire instructors. Lawmakers have yet to decide on the request. The Legislative session ends Friday.

"You need to make some noise about this," said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, who attended the meeting. "A lot of lawmakers are unaware of this problem. Make some noise and make it now. Anything can change in the next five days."

Training centers also are responding. Francis Tuttle will begin a 144-hour sheet metal course day students can complete in six-weeks or night students in eight-weeks. Metro Tech, in expanding its sheet metal classes, is accelerating the program. Both courses start in June; enrollment is open.

"What we have here is somewhat of an epidemic," said Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission. "But it's a man-made epidemic that can be solved."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Daily Oklahomanp>

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