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Tour could give wings to local aviation school

December 12, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Efforts to attract an aircraft technician training program to Hagerstown gained a boost this month when representatives from five of the country's leading aeronautical educational institutions came to town for a tour of Hagerstown Regional Airport and the growing government contractor businesses around it, said Greg Larsen, the airport's business development manager.

The tour, conducted Dec. 2, included visits to the Hagerstown facilities of AgustaWestland Inc., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Sierra Nevada Corp.

Those companies and others based at the airport have a large demand for qualified employees, particularly aircraft maintenance technicians, to keep up with their growing workloads in Hagerstown, Larsen said.

Sierra Nevada, an aerospace technology company, announced in October that it needed to hire 100 new employees as a result of a new $610 million contract to equip aircraft for the Department of Homeland Security.

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AgustaWestland, which has an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at the airport, announced a new $17 million U.S. Navy contract in November that will require up to 20 new employees.

"From what we've been told, that solidifies the presence of Agusta in Hagerstown," Larsen said.

Northrup Grumman, which specializes in advanced aerospace and electronic systems, is constantly growing and hiring for its Hagerstown location, Larsen said. Its Web site lists 15 job openings in Hagerstown.

To feed that growth, airport and local government officials have been advocating for the establishment of a federally certified aircraft maintenance technician school at or near the airport so local residents can get the training they need to qualify for the openings.

Larsen said he orchestrated the recent tour to demonstrate the high work-force demand at the airport to some of the institutions that could supply that work force and potentially even establish satellite campuses in the Hagerstown area.

"It's very hard for me to explain to somebody who is an engineer or a mechanic or a technician what it is that these companies are doing, so the thought was to provide them with a firsthand view of the floors of the operations and to provide them with an opportunity to hear firsthand from the principals of those operations what their vision is," Larsen said.

The schools that participated in the tour were Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, National Aviation Academy, Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

"I think we really achieved the objective of gaining the interest of the educational institutions," Larsen said.

Three of the schools -- National Aviation Academy, Spartan and Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics -- each expressed an interest in establishing an aircraft maintenance technician program in Hagerstown, Larsen said.

In addition, Embry-Riddle, which has about 170 satellite campuses all over the world, was interested in possibly setting up a Hagerstown program to meet some of the companies' other needs for professionals such as engineers and technical managers, Larsen said.

The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, which has the only aviation science program in the state of Maryland aside from the U.S. Naval Academy, also was interested in opportunities for serving the airport, such as a transfer agreement to feed Hagerstown Community College students into its bachelor of science in aviation program, said Ali Eydgahi, who chairs the school's Engineering and Aviation Science department. Other possibilities include use of the school's online degree program or a hybrid program that would include sending faculty to Hagerstown, Eydgahi said.

School representatives also spoke among themselves about the potential for collaborations between two or more of the schools, Larsen said.

Another purpose of the tour was to allow the institutions to spread the word to their students about job openings in Hagerstown, Larsen said. In the future, he said he might organize a day in which top graduates from those schools would come to the airport for interviews at the companies.

Previously, local interests had discussed trying to underwrite the startup costs for a technical training program at the airport, which are estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million, Larsen said. However, in light of the recently awarded contracts and the increasing potential for growth, he said the airport is taking more of a "free market approach" to attracting a school.

"We believe we've got enough going on here at the airport that a company should be able to make a case of just making a good business decision case that this is going to be a good place to establish a satellite program or a school," Larsen said.

Representatives from several of the schools contacted after the tour said they were impressed by what they saw at the airport.

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