On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Thomas Sparks and his classmates were busy tinkering with some metal paneling in a classroom near the Albertville Regional Airport.
After spending a couple years as a graphic designer and several years prior in manufacturing, the 42-year-old decided to go back to school and explore his passion for airplanes.
He reminisced about going to the airport as a child to watch the planes with his parents and said “that’s a field and a career I would love to do.”
So Sparks went back to school and is now part of the first wave of students going through Snead State Community College's aviation program.
The program began at Albertville Regional Airport under the direction of Enterprise State Community College back in 2009. From then until spring 2018, they offered an airframe technology program.
When Snead took over in May 2018, they expanded the program and added a power plant technology program. Former instructor Dan Owen said the expansion was needed to keep up with industry demand.
“Experts are saying somewhere around 800,000 folks will be needed over the next 10 years as aircraft mechanics. And so that pipeline is fairly slow in the process,” said Owen.
Owen started with the program back in 2009 when it started and has about 50 years of aviation experience. He retired from Snead State earlier in February.
He told WAAY 31 that his student traveled from across the state for the course, from as close as Boaz to as far away as Birmingham and the Shoals.
“It's very surprising, actually, but it’s, it just shows you the dedication, motivation that people, our students have, that want to have that good career and understand the importance of it,” Owen said.
In fact, according to the Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL), aircraft maintenance workers are among the department’s top 40 jobs based on demand. They estimate there will be about 355 openings each year between 2016 and 2026.
The ADOL said in 2016, the average salary for an aircraft maintenance worker was $67,678.
Local businesses like Science & Engineering Services (SES) said one of their biggest challenges in hiring these workers is the lengths they have to go to find qualified people.
“Over the past several years, we’ve had to go outside of the area to find some of these skill sets, whether it be aircraft mechanics or technical-type positions,” said Matt Boyett, the director of human resources for SES.
Boyett said they often have to travel as far away as two or three hours outside the Tennessee Valley to find qualified workers. Oftentimes, that means going where the military is located.
“So we’re going to look at places like Fort Campbell, Fort Rucker. And typically, those areas have programs already in place or schools in place to where they’re providing skilled workers to that area,” said Boyett.
Buford Thomas, the vice president of training - FWIW, said about 50 percent of their current workforce has a military background. He said that’s because their training often provides them with the airframe and power plant (A&P) certifications that employers like SES need.
Back at the Albertville airport, starting this year, when students leave, they will be eilgible to take the A&P certification test with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Owen said its crucial for add more programs like Snead’s.
“There's about 150 schools in the nation that produce aircraft mechanics and even with being maxed out in their population or their student flow, it won’t be enough to sustain the demand that the airlines and other parts of the industry will be needing over the next 10 years,” Owen said.
And while the program hasn’t produced its first wave of students yet, there are currently 22 enrolled in the spring semester. This includes both adults and duel-enrollment students.
Dillon Blevin is one such student. His passion for aviation since the fourth grade and the promise of financial aid from Snead enticed him to join the program.
“I already knew I kind of wanted to get into this and I just thought it would be an interesting experience. Plus there’s the whole grant for dual-enrollment students. So I don’t have to fork out as much money to take these classes,” said Blevin.
Sparks agreed with his teenage classmate and added that this education will allow their careers to really take off.
“This is a career and a field that’s not ending, so you’re always going to need mechanics and this is a well diverse field,” said Sparks.
For more information on the aviation program at Snead State, click here.