CLARKSBURG — The growing aerospace industry in West Virginia has a demand for workers who are able to manufacture and repair airframe parts. Those in North Central West Virginia who are interested in mechanics and avionics have an aerospace facility in their back yard in Bridgeport.

The Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center is the only facility of its kind in the state, said Dr. Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia.

“Individuals from across West Virginia, dislocated workers and coal miners are the majority of students we see enrolled in the aerospace program at the RCBNAEC,” she said. “Ninety-two percent of our students are West Virginia residents to be exact.”

While one needs some basic education, the program is very hands-on and offers two different programs — an eight-week Aircraft Structures Training Program (ASTP) and a two-year associate’s degree program in Aviation Maintenance Technology.

“Community colleges focus on workforce development and after cooperating with businesses in different industries, we determine what needs and what job opportunities are needed in the area and develop programs to meet those needs,” Tucker said.

Tucker said one of the most advantageous parts of the program is the opportunity to be placed in a life-long career prior to graduation.

“These programs provide students with the education to graduate and receive a high-wage position at one of the local companies,” she said. “Every student who has graduated has received a job.”

Funding for the school was arranged by the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd in hopes to train people for a career in the ever-changing industry.

According to Director Thomas Stose, the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center is regulated thoroughly by the FFA every semester. He said they inspect the programs and requirements to ensure accreditation.

Before graduating, students must receive 1,900 hours of hands-on experience in order to meet federal regulations, he said.

“We have a 100 percent placement rate for those who are interested in being placed in a career,” Stose said. “Sometimes we have individuals that graduate from the program and decide to take some time off or go for another certification.”

Local companies that consistently hire graduates from the school include: Aurora Flight Sciences, Bombardier, Engine and Airframe Solutions Worldwide, KCI, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney.

“The aerospace education opportunities here in North Central West Virginia are instrumental to the workforce,” said Mike Gray, quality training and technical publications supervisor for Engine and Airframe Solutions Worldwide. “Roughly half of our workforce has graduated from the programs, and one of the part owners of the company and production supervisor is a graduate from the RCVNAEC. The programs have been really critical to our workforce.”

Gray said by being the only school in the state offering aerospace education, it allows companies to hire local technicians who have good training and are able to come on board immediately.

“If you desire to be in the aviation industry as a technician or even a pilot, you can stay in the state and get that education right here in your back yard,” he said. “The students who leave these programs are ready to fit into our organization and are dedicated to working hard.”

Lockheed Martin has been in a partnership with the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center for roughly five years, production manager Chuck Saffle said.

“We are just now in a position where we will be able to do hiring and pull from the candidates,” he said.

“I think that having the program available in North Central West Virginia is a tremendous benefit for area companies,” said Robert Fitzpatrick, plant manager for Lockheed Martin. “It’s good to find employees from the area who will stick with the company for a good time. The students enrolled in these programs are local residents and want to remain in the area.”

Following an agreement with Lockheed Martin for employment, Fitzpatrick said new employees must receive Lockheed certifications.

“They may be familiar with what they need to know but we verify that when they get here,” he said. “Certifications and continued education are just part of the industry.”

Fitzpatrick said Lockheed Martin makes an investment in individuals and their future.

The Robert C. Byrd Institute provides manufacturers with regional access to equipment and affordable workforce development and technical training programs, according to Martin Spears, associate director of public information.

“By providing customized training for companies for their employees, we are able to provide skills and continued education in order for individuals to continue in a current position or advance and take a new role in a company,” he said.

In order to operate and maintain equipment, it requires focus and skilled operators and technicians, Spears said. RCBI works with these local companies and with the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center so they can develop skilled operators and technicians who meet all of the specifications of the industry, he said.

Mike Friel, public information specialist with RCBI, said it is conveniently located near the local aviation and aerospace companies as a resource for the industry.

“We can provide trainings at our facilities or we can go with them to their shop floors to work on whatever kind of training that the individual manufacturer needs us to provide,” he said.

Pratt & Whitney has worked closely with the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center since the inception of the program, said Jeffrey Powell, business development manager.

“It is always a resource for us when we go through periods of hiring and, this is, of course, one of the first places that we look,” he said. “There is a huge group of aviation industries here, and it’s not always easy to find qualified applicants to work in these specific jobs.”

Powell said with the help of the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, Pratt & Whitney is able to fill positions when needed.

“We reach out to the entire state and have had students from Charleston, Martinsburg or Parkersburg. We have students who come from all over. That’s how trusted we are,” he said. “After 21 months, the companies are coming to you and wanting to invest in you. That is the benefit of this program.”

Stose said he is working diligently to receive a federal grant for updated training equipment in order to expand training opportunities for more students.

Aerospace, News