West Star Aviation Academy’s Workforce Program Receives Recognition

May 22, 2024
West Star Aviation Academy (WSAA) has taken West Star Aviation facility's workforce problem into its own hands creating a solution by employing individuals while they learn airframe maintenance.

May 21—EAST ALTON — West Star Aviation Academy (WSAA) has taken West Star Aviation facility's workforce problem into its own hands creating a solution by employing individuals while they learn airframe maintenance.

That's why the RiverBend Growth Association (RBGA) named West Star Aviation Academy for its Pioneer Award for large business. The chamber will present the award at its Chamber Choice Awards luncheon at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 22, at the Lewis and Clark Community College Commons, in Godfrey.

" West Star is one of the largest employers in the area," RBGA President and CEO John Keller said. "This is an incredible program it created to meet its workforce needs."

Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC), based in Belleville, delivers the education for WSAA that is on the campus of the St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton.

"There were not enough licensed aircraft mechanics and not enough education institutions, like SWIC, to remove the barriers to educate the number of individuals that West Star needs," said WSAA's Katie Johnson, chief people officer. " West Star needs to hire 100 technicians a year, so we partnered with SWIC to help meet our workforce demands."

SWIC can accommodate only 25 students per year in its on-campus aircraft maintenance program. Now, WSAA also is taking 25 "students," who are actually paid apprentices hired as West Star employees. They are paid as they go through WSAA's comprehensive seven-and-a-half-month program.

The goal of WSAA is to produce a highly skilled and work-ready pool of FAA-licensed aircraft maintenance technicians while removing the barriers associated with gaining employment and fulfilling the educational and licensing requirements.

"What we really focus on is what are the financial struggles," said Johnson, who has been in the aviation industry for 23 years; the last 10 with West Star. "Many people don't have the ability to work during the day and go to school at night. West Star supplies the education and the income."

WSAA's first class of 25 started Jan. 15.

"In my role, I've always asked, 'Why don't we have enough people?'" Johnson noted. "I got involved to create a vision of how to solve the workforce challenge of the future and remove the financial barrier to this education."

Graduates start applying for their education and license by working on active aircraft in West Star's hangar.

"We need more people who have experience, so West Star created the capacity," Johnson said. "Most companies hire new people and say, 'You're experienced, great. Now start working.'

"We pay them to come to work while getting the education sitting in a classroom that's next to our hangar. They come clock in and be a student. It's very neat and very unheard of in the industry."

In return, WSAA graduates commit to continued employment with West Star to put their skills to work and unlock their career potential through future advancement.

At WSAA, apprentices receive in-depth training in airframe maintenance, honing their skills through hands-on training in collaboration with SWIC and Choose Aerospace. Mentorship and job shadowing opportunities further bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world experience.

Graduates of WSAA not only become essential contributors to shaping the firm's collective future but also gain access to a multitude of career opportunities within one of the U.S.'s No. 1 maintenance repair organizations.

Employees benefit from updated facilities, leading-edge equipment, extensive on-the-job training, structured airframe training, and emerging leadership development.

"What this award means from our perspective, is that West Star hit the goal of what we wanted to accomplish," Johnson said. "The business Pioneer Award means to rethink the future and be innovative."

For tickets to the RBGA Chamber Choice Awards luncheon visit https://growthassociation.com/

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