Innovative Apprentice Program Expands Aviation Workforce

AAR, one of the nation’s Top 100 defense contractors, will join a pair of Louisiana workforce training partners – LED FastStart® and SOWELA Technical Community College – to create an innovative apprentice program for the aerospace industry in Southwest Louisiana.

In August 2013, AAR officials announced their decision to establish the company’s sixth MRO operation (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul services) in North America at the Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, La. There, AAR will retain 250 former employees of a predecessor company, Aeroframe Services, and create 500 additional jobs by 2017.

The announcement strengthens an already growing aerospace industry sector at Chennault, where Northrop Grumman is another MRO tenant. Based in Wood Dale, Ill., AAR provides aviation services and technology products to government and defense customers worldwide. The company employs 7,000 people in 17 countries, and ranks as the No. 1 provider of aircraft MRO services in North America.

The expansion into Louisiana enables AAR to tap new markets, namely maintenance operations for all wide-body aircraft, including aircraft as large as the Airbus A380. AAR will occupy approximately 520,000 square feet of MRO service and administrative space at Chennault, as well as an additional 118,000 square feet now under construction to accommodate wide-body aircraft. Louisiana committed $17.5 million toward construction of the newest hangar space, which made Chennault a particularly attractive expansion site.

To cement the AAR project, Louisiana combined its best workforce weapons to form a dynamic employment solution for the aerospace company. LED FastStart and SOWELA are establishing a national Aircraft MRO Center of Excellence, which will support the ongoing training of employees and create a pipeline of talent for AAR and other aviation service providers in the region, such as Northrop Grumman.

SOWELA already boasts a successful aviation maintenance technology program that provides airframe and power plant mechanic certification, both approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Now LED FastStart and SOWELA are introducing a six-week, pre-employment apprentice program intended to train new potential employees quickly and to significantly expand the employee recruitment pool. The apprentice program will be offered 10 times annually and will bridge the gap between local job seekers with no past experience in the aerospace field and entry-level positions at companies such as AAR and Northrop Grumman.

The State of Louisiana provided $3.7 million in funding for enhancements to SOWELA’s aviation curriculum to get the apprentice program off the ground. The investment includes new and improved structures, systems and avionics; replacement and expansion of technical training equipment needed for these programs; accelerated hiring of national-caliber talent to provide leadership and training expertise for the program; and updated aerospace labs for students to practice and qualify for certification and jobs through hands-on lab work.

SOWELA Chancellor Neil Aspinwall said AAR was given the opportunity to shape the curriculum of the program, which began in November 2013.

“With the tremendous economic expansion in our region, SOWELA has stepped up to work with industry to provide customized training,” Aspinwall said. “In the case of the apprentice program, we’re able to create a program for the aviation industry that delivers exactly what it’s looking for in new employees.”

Danny Martinez, vice president of Technical Services for AAR Aviation Services Group, said partnering with post-secondary educational institutions such as SOWELA makes good business sense to AAR.

“We have a track record of working closely with community colleges, technical schools and universities to support curriculum and training programs to build the pool of local talent,” Martinez said. “The SOWELA apprentice program will draw from our experience with those programs, but will be tailored to the type of aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul work we perform in Lake Charles. We look forward to a long relationship.”

SOWELA Vice Chancellor for Economic and Workforce Development Joseph Fleishman said the partnership exemplifies the way the college wants to work with business and industry. SOWELA’s intention, he said, is to create credit and non-credit programs quickly — and in direct response to industry needs.

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