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County might build aircraft maintenance technicians school

July 04, 2009|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

With business surging among government contractors at Hagerstown Regional Airport, a strong push has started to build a federally certified aircraft maintenance technician school in the area.

The school not only would benefit aircraft companies throughout the area, but could lead to high-paying careers for skilled factory workers left jobless by the recession, other residents and even returning veterans, an airport official said.

"We are hell-bent on making this program happen," said Greg Larsen, business development officer at the airport. "We have identified it as one of our highest priorities ... We are planning to get it up and running by fall of 2010."

The necessity of such a training school here is clear, said John F. Barr, president of the Washington County Commissioners.

"The need has been demonstrated at the airport," Barr said, citing the recent rapid growth of companies hardly even known in the community because they have not been here long and because their work is shrouded in military contract secrecy.

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"Sierra Nevada (Corp.) has grown from, like, five employees to, one day last week, like 532," Barr said. "AgustaWestland came to town a year or two ago with two employees and are at 15 or 20 or so.

"... And, of course, the other big player out there, along with a lot of independents and proprietor types, you've got Northrop Grumman, which is also in growing mode."

In all, Barr said, companies at the airport have more than 1,000 employees -- and probably more than half of them are aircraft maintenance technicians.

Just among Sierra Nevada, Northrop Grumman and AgustaWestland, employment totals about 700, according to various sources.

In the past three months, Sierra Nevada has added 60 workers, a company official said. Northrop Grumman is looking to hire at least 11 more workers now, according to its Web site. And AgustaWestland also hopes to expand, Barr said.

'Gobs of work'

Officials with the three companies were guests at a June meeting of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, a nonprofit group of community leaders.

Understandably, because the companies do military work, their officials have been reluctant to talk much, if at all, about their work here.

But they came to the Greater Hagerstown meeting "because you want people to understand" opportunities such as the proposed school, said Hal Lucas, director of integrated aviation systems at Sierra Nevada's Hagerstown operation.

Lucas said he was among the speakers at the Greater Hagerstown meeting.

"There are jobs and there's a future in aviation, but it's an aging work force" that such companies rely increasingly on these days, Lucas said.

"Kids are not as interested in aviation" as they were a generation ago, he said. "It's made hiring more difficult."

Sierra Nevada fixes and modifies airplanes in Hagerstown for such agencies as the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Northrop Grumman does such work here as integrating multisensor imaging systems and advanced signals collection systems on aircraft, according to the latest Business & Industry Directory issued by the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

AgustaWestland has a maintenance repair operation here, working on helicopters.

Sierra Nevada has worked by itself and with other companies here on aircraft the military uses for aerial surveillance in Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Lucas said his company has been able to fill its jobs here by bringing in technicians from elsewhere.

"We bring in applicants from all over the U.S., he said, noting when other companies lay off employees, those workers "may be here the next day."

The ongoing problem, however, is there aren't many training schools, Lucas said.

"But there is gobs of work. It just isn't a field people go in anymore," he said. "But aircraft are coming off the line and old aircraft are being rebuilt ... and people have to maintain 'em and fix 'em and everything else ... A good majority of our folks come out of the military."

The money search

Larsen said a search already has started for a building to house the proposed school.

He said four potential sites have been narrowed to one, which he declined to identify.

"We're just starting to get into negotiations on that," he said.

The other hurdle to establishing the school is money.

"I think we're probably looking (at) about $1.5 million to get the program up and running," Larsen said. "I stress, that's a one-time cost. Once the program starts, it'll be self-sufficient."

Larsen said he will push for funding from local, state and federal governments.

"We're going to get very aggressive on that (in the) next several months to make that happen," Larsen said.

The school would be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, Larsen said. Hopefully, he said, it would be linked eventually to a college and accredited for those who might want to apply its credits in pursuit of other training elsewhere, he said.

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