During World War II, North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene trained hundreds of pilots, aircraft mechanics and aviation technicians as part of the nation’s war effort. By 1947 NIC had the nation’s only combination watchmaking and aviation instrument repair program, operating at Weeks Field, now the North Idaho Fairgrounds.
But during the Korean War years, the college shifted to programs like auto mechanics and closed its extensive aviation offerings.
Now, NIC has come full circle, as it makes the final addition to Aerospace Center of Excellence, which opened in 2013 with programs focused on airplane manufacturing. Next month, the center kicks off its new, aircraft maintenance program certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“They’ve specifically matched what industry has told them that they need,” said Garry Hojan, operations manager at Aerocet in Priest River and president of the Idaho Aerospace Alliance. “It’s right in line with what industry is looking for.”
Students who start the new airframe maintenance program next month and complete three semesters of rigorous instruction will be qualified to sit for FAA airframe mechanic exams in August 2016.
That airframe program will teach students to “fix everything but the engine,” said Patrick O’Halloran, director of aerospace for NIC. That includes handling sheet metal, riveting, composite materials, basic electricity, aircraft wiring, assembling and rigging and hydraulics, he said.
“They’re really going to be qualified to work on an aircraft from front to back,” O’Halloran said.
Hojan said the new supply of recruits can’t come fast enough for his company, which makes aircraft parts and float pontoons.
“We just hired 11 more people in the last two weeks,” he said.
Quest Aircraft, a Sandpoint company that makes a single-engine turboprop airplane called the Kodiak, announced earlier this month that it plans to nearly double the size of its factory in Sandpoint, with construction to begin in August. “I know that they’re probably looking at trying to double their output of airplanes,” Hojan said.
Other aerospace-related businesses in North Idaho and throughout the region also are hungry for trained employees.
“We’re finding that we’re still hiring unqualified people and having to train them, because we can’t get enough students through the program,” Hojan said.
The Idaho Department of Labor estimated last year that the state had 200 aerospace-related companies with 2,200 employees. More than half of those workers are located in southwestern Idaho, but 20 percent are in North Idaho.
In 2012, the median annual wage for aircraft mechanics and service technicians in Idaho was $47,550, or $22.76 an hour. That’s nearly 57 percent higher than median annual wage for all occupations in the state.
“It’s a competitive industry, and it pays better,” said O’Halloran, who has overseen the development of the Aerospace Center of Excellence in Hayden. The center, developed with a $3 million federal grant, has enrolled 92 students so far, all in advanced aerospace manufacturing programs.
The new airframe maintenance program is the most rigorous of the programs offered at the center, and the only one that required FAA approval, an extensive process that took 18 months. Students must clock in and clock out to prove they spend the required number of hours on each part of the instruction.
The new program can accommodate 20 students and there still are eight slots available, O’Halloran said.
Niki Vandenhouten, of Clark Fork, already is signed up. The recent Clark Fork High School grad already has completed a full semester of advanced composites manufacturing.
“I’ve always liked the hands-on work, like working on vehicles and stuff, and the dirty work,” said the 18-year-old. “I kind of grew up a tomboy.”
She considered construction work like her dad, but he cautioned her that was “a terrible field – you never know where your next job is coming from.” She learned about aerospace programs at school.
Students have the option of completing a 12-month certification program, or continuing on to a full associate’s degree and combining it with composites training; Vandenhouten said that’s the route she’s taking.
“Being able to be a part of working on the airplane is what’s exciting me the most – being able to say, ‘I built that part on that airplane,’ ” she said.
O’Halloran said NIC opted not to add the “powerplant” portion of aircraft maintenance – the engines – at least for now. That’s offered through Community Colleges of Spokane and several other locations in Eastern Washington, and also at Idaho State University.
“It’s a whole lot more expensive to go for the engines, and our neighbors may not like the noise,” he said. “That’s available right down the road.”
In the future, O’Halloran said, “We’ll go where industry drives us.” He said that likely will include expanding into unmanned aircraft, or drones.
Hojan said that’s a good bet. He noted that there are 41 companies involved in “unmanned aerial systems” in Idaho.
“I think that’s going to be a very large part of the future of aerospace,” he said.