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Aviation Training Programs Aim to Meet Demand for Pilots, Technicians

Valerie Crowder

New training programs for drone operators, commercial pilots and aircraft mechanics are taking off in the panhandle with an extra boost from 2010 BP oil spill settlement dollars, which have been flowing into eight coastal counties in the region for the last couple of years. 


“We’re providing a lot of help and a lot of assistance in creating jobs,” said Don Gaetz, chairman of Triumph Gulf Coast, the board that’s doling out $1.5 billion in settlement dollars to the region’s coastal communities.  “Once the jobs are created, you have to have people who are qualified to compete for those jobs.”

The board’s primary function is to support projects that create high-paying jobs in new and emerging industries.  Diversifying the region’s economy will make it easier to recover from any future environmental disasters that could occur in the Gulf of Mexico, Gaetz said. “It won’t bring our economy to its knees.”   


The board’s focus on the aviation and aerospace industries comes as the nationwide demand for qualified workers exceeds the supply and as advancements in drone technology promise thousands of new jobs in the coming years. Education leaders want to build a workforce pipeline, in the hopes that more companies from those sectors will bring jobs to the region’s residents. 


“Our colleges and our school districts are going to be training people in aircraft maintenance, in airframe maintenance, even pilot training, so that we can meet the demand for qualified individuals,” Gaetz said. 


One of the first aviation projects Triumph agreed to fund is a new aircraft maintenance repair facility at the Pensacola Airport.  The board has contributed $65 million to pay for the $200 million project. Though it isn’t a certificate program, the facility is estimated to create hundreds of jobs for workers who are licensed to test and repair aircraft engines, Gaetz said.  “For those 2,400 jobs to actually exist, we have to have trained people,” he said. 


A recent Boeing study estimated a need for 10,600 commercial pilots and 9,650 aircraft mechanics to enter the workforce in North America each year. In 2018, about 5,000 pilots and 4,500 technicians were trained in the U.S., said Frank Fuller, the board’s educational programs advisor. 


In the eight-county Triumph region alone, there was a demand for 300 certified aircraft mechanics last year, but local education programs only certified 100 students, Fuller said. 


For the region’s exiting military service members and students, “there’s a job market,” he said. “All you have to do is complete the training.” 


At Northwest Florida State College, a training center for aircraft mechanics and commercial pilots is preparing for takeoff.  College estimates project the program will issue at least 1,255 certificates over the next decade. The first class of students will begin their training in August 2021, said Devin Stephenson, the college’s president.


“We’re building it, and we know that aviation industry will follow,” Stephenson said. “They’ve already called and said, ‘We want to know about this.’ Some of the largest names in the aviation industry.” 


More than $8 million from Triumph will help fund the center after the board approves the final grant agreement next month. Lively Technical College in Wakulla County is also expected to receive almost $3 million to expand its existing certificate programs for aircraft mechanics. 


Credit Valerie Crowder
Gulf Coast State College offers certificates for piloting drones that weigh less than 20 pounds through it's associate's degree program in unmanned vehicle systems. The bootcamp would offer licenses to operate larger drones.

Drone training programs at schools in the region are also underway with Triumph’s support. FAA-approved certificate programs at four high schools in Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla Counties were launched within less than a year after receiving funding approval from the board. Students enrolled in the programs have a chance to earn drone piloting licenses by the time they graduate. 


At Gulf Coast State College, the board has tentatively agreed to help fund a 16-week drone certification bootcamp at the Port St. Joe campus this fall.  But approval of the final Triumph grant agreement depends on the college securing additional funds to sustain the program. 


The bootcamp would supplement the college’s existing associate’s degree program in unmanned vehicle systems operations, said Jim McKnight, chairman of the college’s board of trustees. 


College officials will likely seek help from companies that plan to create thousands of drone-related jobs in the coming years, including Amazon, Verizon, Textron and Boeing, McKnight said. “To those companies, that’s not a lot of money to begin to create the workforce across the region, so they’ll be the first people we approach,” he said.


A Georgetown University study, which the state college commissioned, projects 19,733 drone-related jobs will emerge in the panhandle over the next decade. The estimated salary for those positions ranges between $55,000 - $130,000, McKnight said.  “In our little rural area, that’s unbelievable money,” he said. “That’s two and half times what our median income is.”


McKnight, who also heads the Gulf County Economic Development Commission, says local students should have opportunity to compete for high-paying jobs in their own communities.


“Our young people grow up in paradise,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to move to Atlanta, make a living, and then return to paradise because we don’t have the kind of jobs that can support them living here.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.