Northern New York Facing Labor Shortage in Luring Maintenance Facility

Jan. 13 -- Since Big Sky Airlines announced plans to locate a maintenance facility in one of six regional airports, Jefferson County employment specialists have raced to define a potential pool of airplane mechanics and service technicians who could persuade the airline to situate its facility at the Greater Watertown International Airport.

These specialists are inevitably encountering one significant problem: the demand for this specialized work force far exceeds the supply.

"I sympathize with Big Sky because they're going to have trouble finding the people because they're in such big demand," said Walter A. Constantini, who directs the Airframe & Powerplant Technology program at Mohawk Valley Community College, Rome. "My graduates will be able to go pretty much anywhere they want to go in the country."

Mr. Constantini's program began in August, partially in response to news that nearby Empire Aero Center would need 400 additional technicians in the next three to five years.

The company, which is stationed at the former Griffiss Air Force Base, performs maintenance, repair and overhaul for several major airlines.

The A&P program has 29 students enrolled, split among two groups. Next year the school expects to enroll 25 new students, which is the maximum for one class.

Big Sky officials have said its maintenance facility would require about 20 people, mostly airplane mechanics and service technicians.

Donald C. Alexander, business development specialist for the Jefferson County Job Development Center, said his agency had eyed the community college program as a potential applicant base.

But the A&P students may desire to stay local and take employment with Empire Aero, which will have already offered them an internship during their one-year course of study.

If graduates decide to branch out, Mr. Constantini said, they will receive "basically the same pay anywhere in the country. The industry has to pay the industry wages. It doesn't matter if you're in upstate New York or in Florida."

"It could very well be that somebody decides that they're prepared to relocate, but that's difficult to put in a proposal," said Barney C. Parrella, a managing director at Innova Aviation Consulting, Bethesda, Md. "Usually you'd like to show you have the persons already in place or readily available."

Mr. Parrella said his firm's client, the St. Lawrence Valley Air Task Force, hasn't asked him to research the potential labor market around Massena International Airport.

But in general, he said, "Any of the bigger locations where you've got a lot going on in aviation, including larger fixed-base operators, is going to draw a bigger labor pool."

That ideal may give the competitive advantage to Albany International Airport, which Big Sky is considering, although Mr. Parrella said he did not necessarily agree.

Mr. Alexander said the employment contingent also identified a potential partner in Lear Siegler Services Inc., a private aviation maintenance contractor stationed on Fort Drum.

But Michael P. Kowalczyk, Lear's site manager, said his group specializes in helicopter repair. The 10th Mountain Division doesn't have its own airplanes, so there isn't a need to scout airplane mechanics, he said.

Mr. Kowalczyk also said helicopter technicians possess different skills than airplane mechanics, and the two groups aren't usually interchangeable.

Both Mr. Alexander and his boss, James P. Fayle, JCJDC chief executive officer, said there is still much more research to be done before Jefferson County submits its proposal to Big Sky next week.

"I think there's going to be a significant effort to help identify for Big Sky what potential we could have here," Mr. Alexander said.

Officials from the county Workforce Investment Board and Employment & Training and Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services are assisting the JCJDC on the employment component of Jefferson County's proposal. Members of the county Buildings and Grounds Department and county Highway Department are investigating renovations to available hangar space at the Watertown International Airport.

Passero Associates, Rochester, the county's airport consulting firm, and Bernier, Carr & Associates are helping the county decide how best to structure the proposal.

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