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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're approaching another deadline and Congress insists it will get its work done - it just hasn't yet. Lawmakers from both parties accept at least some form of the payroll tax cut extension requested by President Obama. They're still debating details, as we'll hear in a moment, and if they fail, taxes go up in January.

INSKEEP: We start with one of the bitter ironies of today's economy. So many people are out of work, but in some parts of the economy workers are hard to come by. NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us to one such place - an aircraft maintenance facility in Oklahoma.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Fly into Will Rogers World Airport and you're two minutes away from AAR Aircraft Services Corporation.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)

GOODWYN: Here American capitalism is on display with all its strengths and weaknesses. AAR services jet aircraft, including passenger planes from carriers like Alaska, Mesa and Allegiant Airlines. Hundreds of skilled blue collar workers, airplane mechanics, are needed for hire. Not only that, it's been that way for years. But in this economy, how can that be?

ANITA BROWN: These are very technically qualified positions. It isn't something that you can take an individual right out of high school and teach them how to do it.

GOODWYN: Anita Brown has been head of Human Resources at AAR's Oklahoma City facility for 28 years. Brown says airplane mechanics start at her company earning between 12 and 15 dollars an hour. Veterans who have their airframe and power plant licenses top out at $28 an hour. And yet AAR can't keep these positions filled.

BROWN: At least 600. I know Indianapolis needs about 283. We're just shy of needing 200 people. They also need people in our Miami facilities. So we're a worldwide organization.

GOODWYN: The longer a mechanic works on airplanes, the more skilled they generally become. Skin, ribs, lavatory plumbing, metal part fabrication, jet engines, electronics - the best can do a lot of different things extremely well. You're like a six foot eight high school senior who can both rebound and knock down the jumper. You're valuable.

Wayne Jamroz is the facility's general manager.

WAYNE JAMROZ: Aircraft mechanic works on pneumatics, hydraulics, electronics. And when you're talking about electricity, they're also working not only in DC voltage but AC voltage as well, which makes them attractive to other companies and other industries.

GOODWYN: AAR has learned all too well that sometimes $25 an hour won't cut it. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned off thousands of mechanics who make hazard pay servicing aircraft in a war zone. And even here at home, over at Tinker Airforce Base and down the road in Tulsa at American Airline's maintenance facility, mechanics can make between five and 10 dollars more an hour. So then why doesn't AAR pay their mechanics more? They say they simply can't afford to. The competition here and abroad is so cutthroat.

Jamroz says you'd be surprised to discover the going rate to repair a Boeing 747 these days.

JAMROZ: You take your car into an automotive place and you're paying 75 to 100 dollars an hour. We sell our labor at 48 to 49 dollars an hour.

GOODWYN: Inside of one of AAR's seven hangers, a 737 under repair gleams in the halogen light. Sly Hendricks is a one of the young mechanics AAR hired after he graduated in sheet metal repair from a local technical school.

SLY HENDRICKS: Man, I love it. It's a good place to work. They don't just throw you to the wolves. It's a process. I had to go through some levels, some training.

GOODWYN: The tuition at the technical school Hendricks graduated from runs about $2,000 out the door. But AAR says that only prepares those gradates to be really trained. AAR also partners with Oklahoma City's Spartan School of Aeronautics. Spartan provides advanced training and gradates bona fide airplane mechanics. But their tuition is $28,000. That's a bit of a climb if you're unemployed. With just his sheet metal training, Sly Hendricks started at AAR making $12 an hour. But after five years he's already up to $21. That's because five years of working on airplanes has taught him a lot.

HENDRICKS: Unlike assembly line work, it's a team effort. Just knowing that I'm able to work on a plane and do the job well is satisfying.

GOODWYN: Having turned Hendricks into a talented structural mechanic, this is the time period the company is most likely to lose him to the competition. And plenty of times that competition is not even in aviation but another industry altogether. The natural gas business is big right in Oklahoma and Texas right now. Of course, this drives AAR mad with frustration, as if it's some farm team for everybody else's highly trained mechanics. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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