Spokane Journal of Business

North Idaho College aerospace curriculum grows to meet demand

College plans to expand maintenance program

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Patrick O’Halloran, aerospace director at North Idaho College, says the future of aerospace jobs in North Idaho looks promising, with demand rising for skilled manufacturers and mechanics.

As Idaho’s aerospace industry continues to grow, so too do programs like those offered through North Idaho College’s Aerospace Center for Excellence, says aerospace director Patrick O’Halloran.

“The future for aerospace jobs in this region looks promising, with demand for skilled manufacturers, mechanics, and pilots,” he says. “NIC has begun a good thing here, but there’s even more potential. We’ll continue to be driven by both industry demand and our community’s appetite to enter into this field.”

The Aerospace Center for Excellence is located at 1845 W. Dakota, in Hayden, a 12,000-square-foot facility that the Coeur d’Alene-based community college leases to house its aerospace manufacturing and aviation maintenance programs.

O’Halloran says NIC is one of the few colleges in the state to offer those classes, which began in August of 2013 as part of a $3 million federal grant awarded through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program.

He says the grant’s original goal was to enroll about 500 students in manufacturing and maintenance programs during a three-year grant period, qualifying them for jobs in the region’s aerospace industry. Grant funds were used to hire initial staff, develop courses, and obtain program supplies. 

During the grant period, the college also recovered enough funding in tuition to cover costs to remodel the building in Hayden to suit the program’s needs.

According to O’Halloran, the grant-proposed training programs were initially noncredit courses, but due to the complexity of the subjects, and the long-term needs of the industry, they were modified into more traditional, accredited college programs.  

  “That took more time to develop and get approved, and so it will take longer to satisfy the number of students served,” he says. “We haven’t yet reached that goal of 500 students served, but the program is now sustainable and of better quality.”

Once grant funding was used up last year, he says, the state’s education department took over funding of the program’s faculty. 

“Our goal now is to sustain and expand college-accredited programs that meet industry standards and workforce demand,” O’Halloran says. “As of spring semester of 2017, total enrollment for both programs was about 38 students.”  

A U.S. Air Force veteran, O’Halloran started as the program’s recruitment officer in 2013, having previously served in a similar position at Spokane Community College. 

He has been the program’s division chair and aerospace director for three years now. 

 “Basically, I manage the programs and make sure both professors and students have everything they need,” he says.

O’Halloran says the center currently has staff of six full-time instructors, one full-time lab technician, and several part-time instructors and administrators. Its current programs consist of aerospace advanced manufacturing and aviation maintenance.

“Other area colleges have similar programs, but we are new to this community,” he says. “Our manufacturing training is just as good as any other in the region, and we’re working to further develop our aviation maintenance program.”

O’Halloran says every semester each of the programs is expected to host between 15 and 18 students, although aviation maintenance courses haven’t quite reached those numbers yet because that program is still being expanded. 

“Currently we have about 15 returning manufacturing students, are expecting 15 more to enter the program this fall,” he says. “In the maintenance program we have seven returning students, and are expecting 15 more in the fall.” 

According to O’Halloran, the center’s manufacturing program offers students the opportunity to complete various short-term certifications on their way to obtaining an associate of applied science degree in aerospace manufacturing. Certifications include computer numerical control mill operation, nondestructive testing, and aerospace composite technician.

“Many students begin by obtaining the one-year certification as aerospace composite technicians and work for local manufacturers while pursuing the second year of courses to obtain their associate’s degree,” O’Halloran says. “We also offer night and online classes so students are better able to complete the full degree no matter their circumstances.”

He says since the program’s start, 12 students have completed the associate’s degree, with about 80 more having earned the program’s composite certification. 

“The composite certification is by far our most popular,” he says. “Several students have also obtained advanced technician certifications.” 

While the center’s manufacturing program was able to get off the ground fairly quickly, O’Halloran says it’s still working to expand its aviation maintenance offerings. 

“Unlike other college programs, the maintenance curriculum had to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards, so that was a longer process,” he says. “It took us about eighteen months to work out the details, but we’ve been certified for maintenance courses now since 2015.”

O’Halloran says the center’s aviation maintenance program offers students an associate of applied science in aviation maintenance technology. Once they’ve earned degrees, students are then eligible to take an FAA exam to obtain what’s called an airframe rating. 

“To become an aircraft mechanic, most people need to complete a certificate with both airframe and power plant or engine ratings,” he says. “Currently, we only offer coursework in the airframe portion.”

Although standard aircraft mechanics have both ratings, O’Halloran says program graduates can still find work with just the airframe skill set. 

“They can choose to work and gain enough experience to qualify to take their power plant rating exam, or we can help them to transfer to a school that offers those courses,” he says. 

O’Halloran says several colleges in Washington state have more well-established aviation maintenance programs that offer the power plant rating, including Spokane Community College; Big Bend Community College, in Moses Lake; Clover Park Technical College, in Lakewood; South Seattle Community College; and Everett Community College. 

“They’re always willing to collaborate with us, because they know there’s a demand in this industry,” he says. “They offer similar courses, but may structure their offerings a bit differently.”

He says since its start, the aviation maintenance program has seen four students complete their degrees and FAA exams, and four more are currently working to complete FAA exams, while an additional seven students are about halfway through the program.

O’Halloran says as NIC continues to develop its aviation maintenance program, it’s considering adding power plant training courses, and additional elective options. 

As its programs expand, he says the center also has begun looking for additional space.

 “One option may be to join NIC’s new Career and Technical Education Facility, which opened last fall in Rathdrum,” he says.  “Another option would be to find a space closer to the Coeur d’Alene airport, which would allow us to explore possible partnerships with them as well.”

In addition to its regular programs, O’Halloran says the center also offers a summer program for high school students called Aero Camp. He says this will be the third summer the center has hosted the camp, which serves as a kind of recruiting tool, attracting area students. 

“The past two years, we offered a two-week course where students could earn college credit,” he says. “This year (the program) will just be one week, with no credits offered, just a well-rounded introduction to the industry.”

He says NIC is also a sponsor of the annual Interstate 90 Corridor Aerospace Expo, a regional conference that gathers some of the region’s aerospace manufacturers and suppliers to discuss opportunities and trends within the industry. 

“We had about 15 of our own aerospace students attend this year, along with probably 15 more from other area colleges, high school, and middle schools,” he says.

O’Halloran says while the programs budget for and purchase most of their own training materials, some are donated by local industry partners like Aerocet and Unitech, enabling students to create larger-scale projects.

He says the aerospace programs collaborate with several such industry partners throughout the region, including some businesses that belong to the Idaho Aerospace Alliance.

“Many of those partners also serve as part of advisory groups for our programs,” he says. “In that role, they’re able to make suggestions and provide insight into how we can adjust our courses and programs to better meet the region’s needs.”

O’Halloran says a big part of the program’s continuing growth has to do with its connection to those partners and the push they’ve given to expand Idaho’s aerospace industry.

 “We have over 80 some companies in this region that are involved in the aerospace industry in some capacity, and as they’ve found their way, people have also come to see the potential for careers in aerospace,” he says. 

Samuel Wolkenhauer, a Coeur d’Alene-based economist with the Idaho Department of Labor, says a total of 431 employees were working in aerospace in the North Idaho region last year. 

“This year that number grew to 569,” he says. “Of last year’s total, 398 of those were in either aerospace manufacturing or maintenance for air transportation.”

Wolkenhauer says the state currently has about 2,560 people working in the aerospace industry, with average annual earnings of $60,076.

He adds that over the next 10 years, the Department of Labor is projecting a 21 percent increase in aerospace manufacturing jobs and a 24 percent increase in aviation maintenance jobs. 

“Both of those growth rates are much faster than comparable industries,” he says. “For example, employment in our general overall manufacturing industry is expected to grow by about 9.8 percent, while aerospace manufacturing will grow at more than twice that rate.”

While average entry-level hourly wages vary, O’Halloran says NIC’s recent manufacturing program graduates can expect to earn between $12 and $16 an hour, while those with maintenance degrees could expect between $15 and $18 an hour.

“In the past few years, people have begun to make the connection between northern Idaho and aerospace, and that’s heartening to see,” says O’Halloran. “This is really just the starting point for our programs, and we’re excited to keep exploring new partnerships, programs, and career options that best serve our community.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken is the most recent addition to the Journal's news team. A poet, cat lover and antique enthusiast, LeAnn is also an Eastern Washington University alum.

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