Aviation Academics

Oct. 21, 2014
The Northeast Tennessee Aviation Initiative aims to attract students to aviation careers

Good things are happening in the Tri-Cities area (Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol) of northeast Tennessee, thanks to good people working together for a grassroots project they founded themselves: The Northeast Tennessee Aviation Initiative (AI). I’ve never seen a project gain so much support so fast from such a wide cross section of people.

The mission of AI is “To promote development of aviation-related skills and knowledge through the collaboration of local academic institutions, civic leaders, government officials, corporations, communities and aviation advocates.”

If that sounds like a dream, you should see what this initiative has accomplished since it was founded by three men over a table in July 2013. These men are far from being dreamers. They are Tennessee State Representative Tony Shipley, Bell Helicopter training/support manager Richard Blevins, and aviation/education advocate Henry (Hank) Somers, a member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and a pilot.

This all started in February 2013 when ASQ members took a tour of Bell Helicopter (Bell) facilities in Piney Flats, Tenn. This facility sends finished, made-to-customer-order helicopters around the world. Bell—employing approximately 500 people in northeast Tennessee—is a primary industry for the region and our nation while also improving our national balance of trade.

Richard Blevins provided an enthusiastic and informative tour. On that tour, Somers learned that only a small fraction of Bell’s employees are hired from the local area. That is certainly not because Bell doesn’t want to hire locally, but because, as Blevins explained, Bell requires skills that are scarce in the local area. That got Somers interested.

Bell was importing employees. If local schools taught the required skills it would help the local economy and help Bell.

Somers knew that aviation industry tends to attract other aviation industry—Wichita, Kansas, is a perfect example—and Bell’s success in the local hiring market would attract other aviation industry. Schools, by offering skills-based courses would gain new students. Not all young people want to go to college and not all good jobs require a college degree. New courses could train students for interesting jobs that pay well.

Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TCRA) would see an increase in traffic and help attract businesses to the industrial parks on the airport—Aviation Parks I and II—as most aviation firms require airport locations with airport access.

Building support

More tours followed with more top community leaders including educators from K-12 plus Dr. Janice Gilliam, president of Northeast State Community College (NSCC); Patrick Wilson, executive director of TCRA; State Representative Tony Shipley and other regional leaders. Blevins’ Bell tours continued to stir up interest.

After a lot of work but in less than a year after AI was founded, NSCC and Bell announced their collaboration for an education curriculum to help aviation and other industrial jobs take off in northeast Tennessee. The announcement was made at the site of NSCC’s future $35 million technology complex facility abutting TCRA. Bell flew to the site in a beautiful red, white and blue helicopter—which was quite appropriate, considering that the event took place the week before July 4.

AI has built a hardworking steering committee that looks like a “Who’s Who” of local leaders from government, industry, colleges, high schools, elementary schools and airports. In addition to the three founders, AI includes top leaders from NSCC, Bell, TCRA and a variety of other top community, state and area leaders.

One fascinating thing about this initiative—nobody involved has been asked to donate money for AI. Each participant is involved because the success of the initiative will benefit the participant.

Bell will save money on recruiting and have input for courses offered by the schools. The schools will gain students. The media see economic growth which will provide them with more revenue. The airport will benefit from increased traffic. Advanced Flight Training hopes to provide flight training. Government always has an interest in more jobs and a better economy.

Money is being spent, but it is clearly seen as an investment in the future of each participant.

Tennessee Promise

Another important factor is the recently passed “Tennessee Promise.”

The Promise is that Tennessee high school graduates can go to college for two years at no cost (details can be found by searching online for Tennessee Promise). To get in, students must do the paperwork. To stay in, they must maintain satisfactory grades (a 2.0 average at a community college) and perform eight hours of civic service per school term. This is not a free ride. Commitment and work are required.

The Tennessee Promise is expected to greatly increase student enrollment, and colleges are expected to compete for those students. This is evidenced by schools like NSCC, which will start this fall with basic industry courses and will have an aviation curriculum by the fall of 2015.

K-12 schools will “feed” prepared students to two-year colleges, which will feed to four-year colleges those students who want a four-year degree.

One of the critical goals is to visit grades K-12 and get the students excited about aviation careers. Bell was already doing this before AI was formed, thus providing a kick start for the program.

As Blevins points out, getting students excited about working in aviation is one thing—keeping them excited is harder, but necessary. Everyone hopes that students will be interested in qualifying for well-paid jobs that are also fascinating, but, as Blevins points out, they must then stay interested for the long run.

STEM skills

The required skills are not acquired overnight. AI wants to provide area youth with an alternative pathway to a successful career, but it requires commitment to travel that path.

The skills required for these jobs are taken from the successful STEM program—skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A new Brookings study—including Chattanooga, Tenn.—indicates that jobs requiring STEM skills are the hardest jobs for employers to fill, and that a person with STEM skills, but no college degree, is-- and will be--in higher demand than a person who has a degree, but no STEM background.

Jonathon Rothwell of Brookings points out that “…workers with no STEM knowledge or post-secondary degrees compete with many qualified candidates for a scarce number of jobs.”

Rothwell expects the gap in earnings and unemployment between STEM and non-STEM workers will get worse unless more technical training is provided in schools. Indeed, a recent broadcast on public radio reported that college grads are currently competing with teenagers for fast-food jobs.

Denise Rice, a manager at Cormetech in Cleveland, Tenn., tells school groups: “I have jobs I can’t fill.” In a recent interview with Edge magazine, Rice said, “We keep telling (young people) to go to college and get a degree, versus getting the skills that are necessary to get a job.” She tells students that “Diplomas count less and specific skills count much more.”

Brookings reported on jobs advertised by 52,000 companies in the first quarter of 2013. In metro Chattanooga, 16.2 percent of job vacancies last year were for technical jobs not requiring a college degree, but paying, on average, more than $50,000 per year.

In the past, high school students were divided between students headed for college degrees and those who were not. Perhaps they couldn’t afford college, perhaps they didn’t want college. The reasons didn’t matter. What mattered was that they couldn’t see a non-college pathway for a better life.

Kids today are fascinated with smartphones, computers and other electronic devices. Aviation jobs include the newest of all of these and more and they are “jobs that make a difference.” The question is: Can our youth be taught to see the pathway offered, and will they commit and stay committed?

Northeast Tennessee includes many small towns with parents who lament the fact that their kids must move away to find a “good” job. AI can help greatly by creating area jobs for youth who will commit and stay committed.

AI already has the cooperation of leaders at the top, and is working hard to get the message across to students. AI people know the problems and the rewards, and are enthusiastic—to an almost fanatical degree—about this program.