Plane truth: Plenty of jobs in aircraft maintenance – just not enough skilled workers
Columbia County, in north Florida about an hour west of Jacksonville, is a place of small towns, timberlands and truck stops that extends from the junction of I-10 and I-75 up to the Georgia line. Fewer than one in six residents have college degrees; the median income is a third lower than the state’s as a whole.
A bright spot in the local economy is HAECO Airframe Services, a subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based company that inspects, maintains and repairs commercial jets at the publicly owned Lake City Gateway Airport, which has a half a dozen large hangars and an 8,000-foot runway dating from its days as a U.S. Navy airfield during World War II.
HAECO’s customers are household names in the airline business. Narrow-body jets flown by JetBlue Airways and United Airlines arrive in the middle of the night, usually after completing red-eye shuttles back from the West Coast. They are parked two to a hangar, where crews of between 54 and 72 people do everything from the routine seat checks required every 18 months to heavy-duty maintenance that must be done every six years. The jets remain in the hangars for several weeks, wires hanging exposed in the cabin and rows of seats stacked along the floors. As soon as one jet leaves, another flies in to replace it; each plane is part of a continuing line of work.
HAECO’s crews see interesting things. In May, they worked on an A321 aircraft built in Mobile, Ala. — the first Airbus jet ever assembled entirely in the United States. In July, they found nearly $200,000 worth of cocaine hidden on a pair of JetBlue planes.
It was big news locally last summer when Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that HAECO would expand in Lake City with another 400 jobs. But wanting to expand and being able to expand are two different things.
Between July and December of last year, HAECO hired 528 workers, says Mark Snook, general manager of the company’s Lake City operation. But it had to get rid of 179 of them, Snook says, either because they weren’t trained properly or couldn’t handle the work. HAECO’s net employment gain was 349 — 51 short of its goal of 400. HAECO would like to hire more — Snook says the company would like to have about 1,100 workers in Lake City. Instead, it’s stuck at around 930.
HAECO’s biggest challenge? It simply can’t find enough qualified employees to fill the jobs. Its maintenance crews do highly specialized, sophisticated work; team leaders must have FAAmandated airframe and power plant certifications.
The company has brought workers into Lake City from beyond the region and state, but they tend to turn over quickly — many are former military personnel who are used to moving frequently, while others want to pursue continuing education that’s not available in the area. HAECO says it prefers workers who’ve grown up in the local community. “We have found historically that when a young person is trained and comes into our facility in our local area, they tend to spend their career with us,” says Kip Blakely, who was, until recently, HAECO’s vice president of industry and government relations.
While the company offers training classes for its workers, local education and economic development officials are also trying to help. But they have run into their own obstacles. The Columbia County School District last year opened an aircraft-maintenance academy on the HAECO grounds that is open to high school students in Columbia, Baker and Hamilton counties. Students spend half their days at their high schools and half the day at the maintenance academy, which includes a workshop where they learn how to make precise metal parts and other technical skills. HAECO, which has helped establish two similar schools near its operations in Greensboro, N.C., has already hired about half a dozen students from the program; others have gone on to college or the military.
The North Florida Aviation Academy currently has about 40 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students. But it should be bigger. School officials say there are another 20 or so students from Hamilton County who would like to attend but can’t — they don’t have access to cars.
Finding teachers is a challenge, too. The school’s initial lab instructor, an airframe and power-plantcertified mechanic, left to take a private aviation job. “It’s really hard to get people who are A&P (airframe and power-plant) level mechanics to come and work for a teacher’s salary,” says Jessica Natale, a social studies teacher who doubles as the academy’s enrollment coordinator.
To fill the gap, HAECO has loaned the school a temporary instructor, Tim Hartman, a metalworking wizard known around HAECO as the company’s “metal bender.” Hartman, whose salary is paid by HAECO, joined the company 37 years ago when it was known as Aero Corp.
Even if the school districts and HAECO can get the academy to full capacity — HAECO envisions 75 or so high school students during the day, plus more adults taking evening classes — there is still the issue of continuing education. The nearest airframe and power-plant program is 60 miles away at Florida State College in Jacksonville. HAECO would like to have one at Florida Gateway College, whose campus is across the street from the airfield.
The problem, again, is money. Gateway College President Lawrence Barrett estimates it would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to launch the program. The school’s annual operating budget is just $20 million. “We’re working on a couple of different angles,” Barrett says. “We’d like to do this much quicker, but this is a huge undertaking.”
These kinds of problems aren’t unique to Columbia County and HAECO. Across Florida, rural areas in particular are having a difficult time not just recruiting jobs but filling the ones already there, says Adam Putnam, the state’s commissioner of agriculture and a candidate for governor. Putnam has been urging Florida lawmakers to devote more resources to rural economic development, which he says has been overlooked.
Too many are “all trying to chase the bright, shiny object, to score the big one when there are a lot of singles and doubles that we can hit on a regular basis for organic job creation,” Putnam says.
In the meantime, HAECO is sending work away from Florida. Right now, the company has both the demand and capacity to work 18 lines of jets in Lake City. It’s only working 10. And it’s about to transfer two to Greensboro, where the talent pipeline is up and running.