N.C. Recruiters Target More Aviation Jobs

North Carolina is trying to live up to its tag line: First in flight.

Recruiters are stepping up efforts to attract plane builders, engine makers and parts manufacturers to the state that claims the birthplace of aviation. Their goal is to win industry jobs that pay double the average weekly wage in North Carolina.

In the past two months, Gov. Mike Easley has announced 483 new positions in the aviation industry. Honda Aircraft Co. in February said that it will build a jet plant in Greensboro, and Smiths Aerospace this month said it will expand in Asheville.

More could be on the way. Rolls-Royce, one of the world's largest jet-engine makers, is considering North Carolina for a facility as it expands several lines. A senior lawmaker this week introduced a bill that would make the state more attractive to aviation companies, suggesting others could be eyeing expansion.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Stan Younger, director of service facilities for aircraft manufacturer Cessna. "It just took a little time for more people to find out what we already knew."

Cessna opened a Greensboro service center for its Citation line in 1994. It has grown into one of the company's busiest, employing 100 and handling about 50 planes a week.

On Thursday, the smell of oil and fuel hung in the air in a sprawling hangar where a dozen jets were being repaired. Technicians pulled panels, revealing nests of wires and stacks of gear that controlled everything from wing flaps to communications.

A nearly three-decade-old Citation 500 had its guts exposed for a routine inspection, the interior stacked neatly on three shelves.

"The cost to do business in North Carolina, I don't want to say it's cheap, but in relative comparison ... you can't beat it," said Younger, who works out of Cessna headquarters in Wichita, Kan. "Greensboro may have been the best-kept secret on the East Coast."

The Triad -- the urban region about 80 miles west of the Triangle -- has developed a core of aviation companies that state and local officials hope will draw more.

In addition to Cessna and Honda, B/E Aerospace makes aircraft seats and interiors in Winston-Salem; Timco Aviation Services repairs jetliners in Greensboro; and Antilles Seaplanes is preparing to build water-landing airplanes in Gibsonville, just east of Greensboro.

Dan Lynch, who recruits businesses to Guilford County, sees the aerospace industry as one solution to the troubles that have plagued the area.

"We think there are a lot of applicable skills coming out of textiles and furniture," said Lynch, who is president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance. He cut short a trip to Pinehurst last week to meet an aviation-industry prospect, which he declined to identify.

"A lot of the same aptitude and dexterity that goes with traditional manufacturing also would be represented" in aviation, Lynch said.

Many of the positions are appealing. Last year, 3,038 North Carolina workers were employed in aerospace manufacturing, according to figures from the state Employment Security Commission. They made, on average, $1,494 a week. The average weekly wage in the state was $696.

It's just those types of statistics that make aviation companies hard to land. Other states are competing aggressively to attract them, too. South Carolina, for instance, has a slick marketing brochure targeting the companies.

Rolls-Royce in December identified eight states, including North Carolina and South Carolina, that might fit its operations. The British company is considering expansion in all of its sectors -- civil aerospace, defense aerospace, marine and energy -- and was seeking data. A spokeswoman said the company has gotten feedback from each state and is evaluating the options. It aims to make a decision this year.

Officials have been trying to make the state more competitive.

The Department of Commerce is working with the National Aerospace Development Center, a non-profit group that helps advance the aviation industry. It won a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to partner with a handful of states to better equip their work forces for aviation careers. A UNC-Chapel Hill professor, as part of a separate initiative, is helping the state identify its strengths and weaknesses in attracting aerospace employers.

State colleges and universities also are involved. In 2005, the Golden LEAF Foundation, which oversees about $600 million in public funds, awarded $9.3 million in grants, mostly to schools, to help create the N.C. Aerospace Alliance and improve training.

N.C. State University was the biggest beneficiary and has become a recruitment tool for developers. Materials science and engineering professors and students have been working with mechanics at the Cherry Point military base to fix recurring problems with helicopters so that they fly more often. That sparked innovation and caught the industry's attention.

"Folks are going to be attracted to the capabilities that we can provide to the community," said Jerry Cuomo, one of the professors leading the effort.

The Commerce Department is not relying on workforce and infrastructure development alone. It also is trying to make the state more financially attractive.

At the behest of the Commerce Department, Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat, this week introduced legislation that would refund sales and use taxes to companies that make planes or plane parts. "Commerce must have some bait in the water," Hoyle said. "I'm told that there is possibly an opportunity for some major components, major jumbo-airplane parts manufacturing."

Hoyle said he didn't know which company was involved. Commerce Secretary Jim Fain, who said he is spending more time on aviation projects, wouldn't comment on any active efforts.

Some companies, though, aren't shy about their ambitions. General Electric makes large jet engines in Durham and plans to add about 40 workers this year to its 270-person staff.

DRS Technologies, which overhauls C-130 cargo planes for the Coast Guard in Elizabeth City and employs 200, wants to "continue the march into North Carolina," said Mitchell Rambler, president of DRS Technical Services. Elizabeth City hopes to use DRS's presence to attract other employers. It recently won a $3.5 million state grant to expand its airport.

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AVIATION COMPANIES IN NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina already has aviation companies across the state. Here are four of the larger ones.

- Goodrich. The Charlotte-based company sells products and services to aircraft and engine makers, airlines and the military. It employs more than 22,000 people worldwide.

- Timco Aviation Services. At its Greensboro facility, the company services and overhauls airliners. It employs about 1,700 at that facility.

- General Electric. The company manufactures large jet engines in Durham, where it employs about 270. It also has an operation in Wilmington.

- DRS Technologies. At its Elizabeth City facility, the company overhauls C-130 transports for the Coast Guard. It employs about 200 workers there.

(THE COMPANIES, GREENSBORO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ALLIANCE)



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