BY KELLI DUGAN
MOBILE, Ala. —
Continued collaboration with the Alabama Industrial Development Training program and aggressive development of diversified career paths for current and potential employees will be a key to ST Aerospace Mobile's longevity as it grapples with an aging workforce.
"We're getting older guys," Bill Hafner, vice president of operations for STA Mobile, joked recently with members of the Aviation and Aerospace Advisory Council.
The council, which held only its second quarterly meeting on the grounds of STA Mobile's sprawling facility at Brookley Aeroplex, was established recently to more efficiently identify and address skills gaps while working proactively to meet evolving workforce development needs associated with the expanding sector.
The council is a joint project of the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council and Enterprise State Community College.
Hafner told the recent gathering of nearly two dozen industry and training leaders that the current number of certified aviation technicians currently in the U.S. workforce totals about 45,000, but the need is expected to more than double to 92,000 by 2031.
STA Mobile, an arm of the global maintenance, repair and overhaul giant Singapore Technologies, can "easily absorb" between 100 and 150 technicians annually, he said, forcing the operation to become more proactive and innovative in the ways it recruits and trains future employees.
The company currently recruits from high schools within a 150-mile radius, Hafner said, offering scholarship and mentorship programs to "willing, deserving young people," but it involves a rigorous selection process and the completion rates are not currently as high as the company would like to see.
STA Mobile's summer program, for instance, drew 163 applicants, only 55 of whom passed the first test. Twenty-five of those who progressed didn't attempt to take the second test and five who did failed. The company finally selected 12 to enter the summer training and one of those did not pass the required background check.
In addition, Hafner said, the company has launched equally rigorous structures and interiors programs - working with AIDT to craft the training - that include 12-week courses followed by lengthy apprenticeships for non-certified positions.
And while Hafner said many of the applicants STA Mobile gets exhibit solid airframe and power plant training and aptitude, they simply aren't acclimated to the fast-paced environment.
In turn, aircraft maintenance training administrator and instructor Robert Turner Jr., has created an accelerated structures program to help bring them up to speed quicker and allow them to "hit the floor at the worker level."
"We've had great success there, and these are good answers to our issues, but it's something we've got to stay in front of," Hafner said.
Another career path the company has created, he said, is for aircraft prep specialists. These positions are for employees with no specialized airframe training but who exhibit an aptitude to learn. Although the program offers limited exposure to STA Mobile's inner-workings, it gives applicants with promise a way in the door and a direct line to enter the other more specialized training programs as their skills improve.
"It's a way for them to - eventually - advance through the system that we just didn't have before," Hafner said.
Globally, the parent company employs about 22,000, split among aerospace, electronics, marine and land systems with two facilities in Singapore, two in China, one in San Antonio and Mobile. Those operations, Hafner said, represented about 8.7 million commercial manufacturing hours in 2010, alone.
The Mobile operation - which provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services and operates as a parts manufacturing authority - employs about 1,300 and includes FedEx, Delta Airlines, American Airlines and UPS among its most visible customers.