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NIC program trains students to meet needs of regional aerospace businesses

Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

The fast-growing aerospace industry needs skilled workers across the Inland Northwest, and North Idaho College has opened a new training center in Hayden to prepare students for those manufacturing and maintenance jobs.

Forty students are enrolled this fall in the Aerospace Center for Excellence, which operates in a converted pole barn near the Coeur d’Alene Airport. They are learning composite materials fabrication and repair, which ties into much of the aerospace business in Spokane, Kootenai and Bonner counties.

Over the next two years, NIC will roll out three more aerospace programs: quality assurance and nondestructive testing; manufacturing and machining operations; and airframe maintenance. Total enrollment is expected to hit 80 to 100 students.

Among those in the first class is Marcus Torres, 27, a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate who earned a photojournalism degree at NIC last May. Now he plans to earn a two-year degree in advanced manufacturing and use those skills to become a mobile repairman specializing in fiberglass and carbon-fiber parts. He wants to get his pilot’s license, too, so he can fly to jobs.

“It gets you on all levels – intellectually, you get your hands dirty working with material, see how different materials lay up, their properties,” Torres said. “It’s so interesting.”

The aerospace center was established with a $2.97 million federal grant and is expected to create 520 new jobs by 2015, with the average salary estimated at $43,500, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

“The outlook for the aerospace industry is really bright,” NIC President Joe Dunlap said.

Twenty-five aerospace businesses have sprung up in North Idaho alone, Dunlap said. They are part of an industry that anticipates sharp growth in passengers, cargo and airliner replacement in the next 20 years, he said.

“We want to do our part to contribute to that,” Dunlap said.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little stopped by the aerospace center Thursday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Otter paid tribute to those who made it happen.

“You had a belief that you were the architects of your own destiny,” he said.

The governor also noted that an aerospace sector established itself here even before a community training program was developed.

“They also had faith,” he said about those companies. “They had faith in the economic climate, they had faith in the regulatory climate, they had faith in the climate that they found in northern Idaho.”

One such operator is Hayden-based Empire Airlines, a FedEx feeder carrier, and Empire Aerospace, which performs heavy maintenance on regional-size turboprop planes.

Empire has trained many employees on the job or sent them out of state to get the necessary skills, CEO Tim Komberec said. Now that training will happen practically next door.

“We have a major interest in all four of the (NIC) programs,” Komberec said. “This stuff’s all in our wheelhouse. This is very exciting for us.”

The composites curriculum was evaluated by Boeing and the International Association of Machinists union, and the one-year certificate is a recognized qualifier for two IAM/Boeing apprenticeships.

Students will be equipped to work for local companies such as Hayden-based Unitech Composites and Structures, which supplies parts for commercial and military aircraft; Triumph Composite Systems, which makes aircraft parts near Spokane International Airport; and Aerocet Inc., a Priest River maker of composite floats for seaplanes.

These skills also are in growing demand in other types of manufacturing, from automobiles to recreational equipment like tennis rackets and snowboards, said Trevor Budge, a composites technology instructor at NIC.

“You can build anything with composites,” Budge said.

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