ROCKFORD — Rock Valley College President Jack Becherer on Wednesday will announce plans to expand the school’s aviation maintenance program to support a potentially far-reaching economic development project at Chicago Rockford International Airport.
The airport has long sought a maintenance, repair and overhaul operation, commonly called an MRO — essentially a jumbo hangar to accommodate jet service and repairs. Such a facility could create hundreds of jobs and make the airport attractive as an international cargo hub. Airport Director Mike Dunn went to Washington, D.C., in December to garner support for the MRO project from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Dunn said Monday that he did not know the specifics of Rock Valley College’s expansion plans.
“News to me,” said Dunn, the airport’s executive director. “I don’t know where they’re expanding, but they’re not going into any facility on the airport that I know of.”
College, airport and economic development leaders have worked behind the scenes for more than a year to land an MRO operator. Tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer investment from the airport, RVC, and the state and federal governments may be necessary to close the deal. The return on that investment could invigorate the regional economy, which for more than four years endured double-digit unemployment. The jobless rate finally fell below 10 percent in April.
Job creation is central to the economic agenda of the region, and for aerospace it means seeking new training opportunities. There’s a shortage of qualified aviation mechanics around the country so local officials have been looking for ways to fill that gap with local and outside training programs where graduates can earn Federal Aviation Administration certificates needed to work on aircraft.
Aviation mechanics are well-paid. Mechanics at a Duluth, Minn., MRO can earn up to $25 an hour, according to a January report in The Minneapolis Star Tribune.
For more than a year, local political and business leaders courted Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which said it wanted to establish a four-year college in Rockford or Houston. Instead, Embry-Riddle expanded its existing education programs here to provide advanced degrees for workers at companies such as United Technologies Aerospace Systems, Woodward and other manufacturers.
Embry-Riddle Worldwide will officially open its new classrooms at 7479 Walton St., on Rockford’s east side later Wednesday.
Rock Valley’s aviation maintenance program, as it stands today, may not be large enough to satisfy the workforce needs of a potential MRO at the city’s airport. The college’s program typically produces a couple of dozen graduates a year.
To that end, Becherer, Dunn and officials at the Rockford Area Economic Development Council have talked with executives of a Tulsa, Okla., aeronautics school about establishing a presence here.
The Register Star obtained Becherer’s email correspondence, using the Freedom of Information Act request, to better understand his negotiations with Spartan College of Aeronautics & Technology. Leaders of the private, for-profit college are considering establishing a Rockford presence to serve perhaps hundreds of students, Becherer’s emails suggest.
The key to Rock Valley’s negotiations with Spartan is how the two schools might partner to provide aviation maintenance instruction here.
Spartan charges students approximately $37,000 for its 18-month aviation maintenance technology program. Rock Valley charges about $10,000 for its program, which requires students to spend an additional $1,500 on a tool kit.
“I understand the value of bringing Spartan to Rockford … economically it is a boon to our region … bringing hundreds of students to our region, filling up apartments … helping you bring an MRO to our region,” Becherer wrote in an April 20 email to Dunn.
“I am prepared to take action to bring them to Rockford but, as you know I report to a board that is cautious to take steps that could result in hurting local students.”