The Wright Brothers Flyer lifts off in Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903. Now 110 years later, a thriving aviation industry is looking to fill jobs in high-tech manufacturing.
The Wright Brothers Flyer lifts off in Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903. Now 110 years later, a thriving aviation industry is looking to fill jobs in high-tech manufacturing. AP
Across North Carolina, many license plates read "First in Flight" — a tribute to Orville and Wilbur Wright. Their plane first flew there 110 years ago.
Today, the state has one of the nation's busiest airports and dozens of aviation companies. And finding workers to fill those jobs has been a challenge.
No longer are workers building legs of furniture, hemming shirts and rolling cigarettes. They're fixing GPS technology, working on stabilizers and manufacturing the next era of aviation.
So officials in North Carolina have begun a recruiting effort to encourage students to think about a new kind of manufacturing job, in the aviation field.
Targeting Students And Parents
At TIMCO — an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul company based in Greensboro, N.C. — about a dozen workers are stripping down a Boeing 737 and putting it back together.
"It takes a lot of people, and that's something quite honestly we're struggling with," says Kip Blakely, a vice president with the company. "We're struggling with finding folks with the right skills, the right certification to come to work here at TIMCO."
About 1.6 million people live in the Piedmont Triad region, which is also home to 40 aviation companies. TIMCO is partnering with local chambers of commerce to promote the aviation industry. Commercials directed at teenagers are now airing during football games and prime time sitcoms.
"Are you looking for a rewarding career with room for advancement? How about aviation?" one of the commercials says. "One of the Triad's fastest growing industries. Demand for skilled workers is increasing and local companies are hiring for all types of positions."
Pat Danahy, president of Greensboro's economic partnership team, says economic development officials are also talking to parents about how the industry has changed.
"One of the challenges we're working on right now is getting in front of parents and students to show them it's a totally different manufacturing environment, if you will, than the basic manufacturing that their fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers were involved in," he says.
A New Breed Of Work
And it appears to be working. High Point, N.C., is now home to a specialized high school aviation academy, where students get to use flight simulators, wind tunnels and 3-D printers.
Inside one cluttered, crowded classroom, two dozen Aviation Fundamentals students work in small groups. They're putting popsicle sticks together into bridges before their structures get tested.
Temoor Khan, one of about 120 students in the High Point program, says his interest in aviation took off during his first flight — from Pakistan to the U.S., seven years ago.
"When I came here I thought of being a doctor. Then I changed my mind. I said, I wanted to be an avionics technician," he says.
Students can earn an associate's degree while in high school and receive aviation certifications. They're interested in becoming mechanics, pilots and aviation engineers. Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm based near Washington, D.C., says it's a new breed of high-tech manufacturing jobs.
"It's become far more about, well, software engineers programming machine tools," he says. "That has resulted in fewer jobs, but better jobs — and of course an industry that is far more dependent upon talented and experienced professionals."