The sky’s the limit for 22 students who began coursework this fall in Aviation Maintenance Technology, a brand-new certification and degree program offered by Southern Union State Community College.
The six-semester program, based at SU’s Opelika campus, is designed to take students and the aviation industry to new heights in Alabama and beyond.
“Alabama is 10th in the United States as far as employing aircraft professionals such as maintenance technicians and mechanics,” said Richard Belk, SU’s director of aviation technology.
Among those employers are 13 flight schools, including a nationally ranked program at Auburn University, Airbus’ U.S. Manufacturing Facility in Mobile and numerous other aviation-based businesses located here in Alabama and throughout the Southeast, nation and world.
Though the industry is soaring, it is also struggling to maintain and expand the skilled workforce so vital to keeping the wind beneath its wings.
“People continue to operate older aircraft and continue to make new aircraft every day,” Belk said. As the number and complexity of aircraft has increased, the pool of experienced mechanics, many of whom are reaching retirement age, has dwindled creating a severe deficit in the field. “We’re 35,000 mechanics short in the industry today,” Belk said.
This shortage poses a challenge for the industry but also an opportunity for a new generation of skilled workers to enter a high-paying vocation with lots of room for advancement. In fact, the average starting salary for an Alabama aviation mechanic in 2022 was $81,000; regionally and nationally salaries often top $100,000.
Seeing a potential to simultaneous meet the needs of the aviation industry and local citizens in search of quality jobs, SU’s Technical Education Division set to work developing the AMT program, which is designed to help students quickly but effectively obtain the Federal Aviation Administration certifications needed to land those jobs.
To do this, SU provides instruction in two areas of concentration; airframe and powerplant mechanics. The airframe concentration teaches students how to build, maintain and repair airplanes’ structural and systems components while the powerplant concentration focuses on the repair, service and maintenance of aircraft engines and related systems.
As students progress through the program’s curriculum, they receive completion certificates that qualify them to sit for the tests required by the FAA. Once they’ve passed both the coursework and the FAA tests, students can go straight to work in the industry or they can take additional core academic courses, such as math and English, and earn associate of applied science degrees in one or both concentrations, which opens additional career routes for students interested in pursuing four-year degrees in aviation-related programs.
“Our hope is that our students will have their airframe and powerplant certification and two associate degrees and in two years,” Belk said. It’s a rigorous program with a strict attendance policy, but it is suited for all kinds of learning styles, from those who thrive in hands-on settings to those who do well in academics.
Regardless of which route they take, students leave the program ready to launch themselves into a high-paying career, one that given Belk almost 40 years of globe-trotting work for the military, FAA, international companies such as FedEx Express and major airports and airlines.
When Belk retired from the FAA in January 2022 after a decade as a trainer and safety inspector, he was not quite ready to spend his days fishing-“I’d have had to learn to fish!” he said- Belk saw a job announcement for director of SU’s aviation technology program. Intrigued with the opportunity to build a brand-new program from the ground up, Belk applied for and got the position, starting work in February 2022 and immediately setting to work creating the program.
Eighteen months later, SU’s AMT program was FAA-certified and ready to recruit its first class. To establish a program that quickly was a remarkable feat that Belk said was made possible thanks to the cooperative efforts of SU’s administration and staff, including the entire SU Technical Division, and the help of community leaders. Among them were state legislators Debbie Wood, Jay Hovey and Joe Lovvorn and Gov. Kay Ivey, all of whom Belk said have been “incredibly supportive.”
SU’s AMT program, which is one of four offered within Alabama’s community college system, is laser-focused on providing crucial real-world training. Much of that learning will take place in a specially designed teaching facility on the Opelika campus where students will work on a wide array of aircraft equipment and components, some of which was repurposed from an old single-engine Piper Cherokee airplane. In addition, students will have access to an intact 1969 Bellanca Viking and a 1962 Piper Cherokee, donated by Rick Seymore of Roanoke, that they can “take apart and put back together again,” Belk said.
This cohort of students, which was intentionally limited to 25 to ensure Belk and Aviation Maintenance A&P Instructor Mark Williams can provide them with lots of support and attention. Members of the class, all of whom are from SU’s coverage area, range in age from recent high school graduates to adults pursuing new career paths.
According to Belk, the program isn’t easy and has a strict attendance policy to ensure students don’t miss a moment of training. But the rewards are great. And Belk believes the program will not only launch these students’ careers but also help attract new aviation-based jobs to the area, which could provide a significant economic boost to the area.
“If we bring even a small 145 repair station (a type of FAA-certified maintenance facility) in here, it may hire only 20 people. But boom! That’s 20 people making up to $100,000 a year,” he said, not to mention the salaries attached to leadership and staff positions in such a facility.
“But to do that, we have to first prove that we are viable and successful,” Belk said. “I’m determined to do it!”
He is also working to help this fledgling program take wing by increasing awareness of it among potential new students, including women (there are three in the current class) and high school students, who can hopefully soon start early on the AMT path through SU’s dual enrollment program. In addition, Belk is always eager to share information about the AMT program with local organizations, businesses and schools.
To learn more about the program, contact Belk at email@example.com or 1-334-745-6437 ext. 5486 or visit the AMT webpage at www.suscc.edu/programs/avprogram.cms.