Mar. 27—BRIDGEPORT — In just a few years, Brad Gilbert hopes to be overseeing twice the students he currently has each semester.
Gilbert, Pierpont Community & Technical College's director of aviation technology, was busy giving tours of his program's facility, and chatting with potential students Saturday at Pierpont's Airframe & Powerplant program open house.
The A&P program is one of Pierpont's most successful fields of study and attracts over 130 students every year to sign up for the program. Currently, due to the space available at the National Aerospace Education Center where the program is housed, the Federal Aviation Administration has capped the number of students that can be admitted at 130.
In the next several years, Gilbert hopes that will change.
The college is in the early stages of building a new facility just for its aviation programs within the new AeroTech Park at the North Central West Virginia Airport. According to college Board Chairman David Hinkle, the project has an estimated cost of around $20 million.
Gilbert is sure the investment will be worth it.
"We want to double our capacity. The goal would be to get 200 or more students in the facility," Gilbert said.
The need in the surrounding industry is certainly there. Just within the campus of the NCWV Airport, companies like Aurora Flight Services, Pratt & Whitney and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries hire the graduates from Gilbert's program faster than he can supply them.
Those companies and others at the airport account for around 1,200 jobs in the aviation industry. And students can graduate from the program and enter jobs that provide solid wages. For example, an avionics technician can make $62,300 a year with training from Pierpont's program.
The troubling part is that the industry just recently went through a 30 percent retirement rate.
That's why the owners of these local companies are cheering on Pierpont's expansion goals. One such individual is Ed Waske, the COO of Engine & Airframe Solutions Worldwide — a company housed at the airport in Bridgeport.
Waske visited the open house Saturday to be a face to the industry for the potential students.
"It's tough to find personnel and it's getting tougher. So what a great program this is to allow these kids to start in high school then transfer right into this school way ahead," Waske said. "If you look at the need we have for additional personnel and the amazing stuff they're doing here [at Pierpont] it gives me hope for the industry here. It far exceeds what some other states are doing."
While Waske is a big fan of what goes on at the aerospace complex, other companies in the locale are still reeling from the recent drama in which Pierpont found itself.
Local businesses and individuals still often mistake Pierpont for Fairmont State University even after their formal separation in 2021, and it doesn't help that Pierpont is still having to share space with Fairmont State at the complex.
Fairmont State's pilot program is growing, and Pierpont wants to expand so there's been something of a turf war over the little square footage at the complex. Complicating matters further, Pierpont was supposed to be moved out of the complex by this past July, according to a separation agreement between the two schools.
In spite of all those complications, Gilbert is hopeful for the future of his program. With a new facility and an administration focused on school identity, he hopes these issues will be resolved in the coming years.
"I've been here for 31 years and still hear people say, 'I never knew you guys existed.' Things like this open house today is all about spreading that awareness," Gilbert said. "Having a larger footprint and a greater awareness in the region, I think we'll be able to provide great careers for young people in the area."
Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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