Oct. 07--When AAR Aircraft Services launched operations at the former Northwest Airlines Maintenance Base in Duluth last November, the company said it would create 225 jobs within the first year.
Ten months in, the company has crushed those numbers.
It has 276 workers with plans to hire 40 more.
But the Illinois-based company -- which operates five maintenance, repair and overhaul bases, or MROs, around the country for commercial airline jets -- is finding it increasingly difficult to find the licensed aircraft mechanics it needs in Duluth.
The company typically has 25 percent temporary contract workers at its maintenance bases to allow for changing workloads. But in Duluth, 40 percent of the work force are contract workers from around the country, company officials said last week.
Most of those 100 temporary workers are the much-in-demand airplane mechanics with airframe and power-plant license certification who make up more than half of the work force.
"Our first choice is full-time employees, but unfortunately we need them now," said Mark Ketterer, the base's director of maintenance. "It's hard to find the expertise we're looking for. We have pretty much exhausted the local expertise."
Northwest Airlines had operated the 188,000-square-foot maintenance base from the early 1990s to 2005 when it moved out, putting hundreds out of work. Those displaced workers were seen as potential AAR hires.
While some were hired by AAR, that pool has dried up.
"The Northwest people moved on to another career, another city," Ketterer said. "They're just not out there to pull from."
So the search for the needed aircraft mechanics expanded to the Twin Cities and beyond, to state jobsites, the AAR network and agencies that provide contract workers from different points on the map.
"They're coming to us from all over the country," Ketterer said of the contract workers. "There's a lot of contract houses who supply labor for us and are very specialized. We're looking for very specific skills."
Many have worked for airline maintenance bases that have closed down as part of an industry trend of airlines outsourcing the heavy maintenance checks on their planes to companies like AAR.
Many of AAR's temporary workers don't want to be with one company for long and like the flexibility of moving around. Others want to check out a place first before committing to a company and a location, Ketterer said.
The contract workers are needed to ramp up the base operations in Duluth. That's critical to fulfill AAR's five-year contract with Air Canada, doing the industry-required checks on its fleet of 90 Airbus A319, A320 and A321 series jets. The servicing takes seven to 45 days per plane.
"We are pretty much booked solid with them," Ketterer said of Air Canada planes, the base's sole customer. "One leaves, one comes in."
AAR started with the first of four maintenance lines in the base hangar in late November, followed by a second line in February. The third line started in early September. Each line works on one plane at a time in two 10-hour shifts, seven days a week.
"We wanted to bring the third line in earlier but didn't have the manpower," Ketterer said.
But that third line isn't fully staffed yet.
"We're very, very lean," Ketterer said. "So we all wear a lot of hats."
A temporary fourth line also is operating on a plane that needs major repair, Ketterer said.
"We can't really do more than four because we can't fit more in the hangar," he said. "And I don't think Air Canada can pull more out of their schedule."
AAR wants those contract workers to stay in Duluth, in jobs that start at $30,000 to $80,000 a year.
"We're in the process of trying to convince contract employees to make this their full-time place and to live in Duluth," Ketterer said.
AAR Aircraft Services' plans to hire an additional 40 people at its maintenance, repair and overhaul facility
To fill those openings, AAR has expanded its recruiting efforts to the Twin Cities and the rest of the state; it is also partnering with and hiring from Northland Community & Technical College in...