Jobs in aviation are growing, fueled by the industry’s importance in transporting goods across economies, as well as the rise in tourism as the industry looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. California is poised on the leading edge of this growth; it’s a hub for major airlines, and boasts aerospace as a key innovation industry. With that comes opportunity for the state’s community colleges to train qualified personnel in all aspects of the field of aviation.
In the Bay area, College of Alameda (CoA) has focused its aviation program on aviation mechanics, an area that is forecasting a worldwide shortage of 600,000 workers in the next decade. At least a third of that need is projected to be in the U.S.
“There are several reasons for this shortage,” explains Diana Bajrami, vice president of instruction at the college. “Many mechanics are retiring, something we saw accelerate during COVID. At the same time, the aviation business is expanding, yet there are a limited number of schools that train the mechanics needed. Plus, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits each program to just 25 students per cohort.”
The school’s Aviation Maintenance Program requires a good deal of determination and discipline, notes Department Chair Hoi Ko. Students attend class for six hours every evening, five days a week, and are allowed just one absence a semester. The overwhelming majority work during the day, and those who study full-time can complete the program in two years. Due to the rigorous schedule, those enrolled tend to be particularly mature and dedicated to their craft.
Once enrolled, students spend 60% of their class time working on light planes, most of which are donated from industry. Professors are industry professionals, and the curriculum is an FAA mandated mix of airframe electrical systems, sheet metal structures, pneumatic systems, instrument systems, and engine overhaul. The school currently graduates three cohorts a year, but that number will increase once one of its two aging hangars is replaced later this year; indeed, there’s a long waiting list to get into the program.
In a field traditionally dominated by white men – currently, women comprise just over 8% of aviation mechanics – CoA has made strides in closing the gender gap. There are currently six women in the program, and Instructor George Cruz would welcome more. “I honestly believe that women make great mechanics because they pay attention to detail, they read directions,” he says.
Graduates are eligible to sit for the FAA Airplane and Power Plant certificate exam, and CoA is proud that the pass rate is 100%. The license allows them to work on any airplane or helicopter registered in the U.S.; each carrier will then require additional training on the specific engines used in their planes.
Graduates who choose not to go onto a four-year university are immediately scooped up for entry-level jobs by corporate or commercial airlines, or are recruited for work in power plants, light rails or the elevator industry, which accept the same license.
Further south in North Orange County, Cypress College’s Aviation and Travel Careers department has spent more than 50 years preparing students for a range of careers in aviation, from pilot to flight attendant, airline agent, and more recently, homeland security. Their Aviation and Travel Careers department even has a degree in unmanned aircraft systems (i.e. drones), an area with potential in a number of industries.
A point of pride is the college’s simulation lab with its full-motion, twin-engine reciprocating & turbine motion flight simulator, where aspiring pilots log hours of training without ever leaving the ground. “We are creating pilots who know how to fly before they ever get into an airplane,” says Department Chair Ed Valdez, who served in the industry for 32 years, many of those as a pilot, before joining Cypress. The program offers four different pilot certificates, plus easy transfer options for those seeking a bachelor's degree. Many go on to California State University’s Aviation Administration program.
The expected job outlook for airline and commercial pilots is on track to grow 13% in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Market Statistics. And, with that growth in the industry comes a need for support personnel. Jobs in aviation management (such as flight attendant, customer service, and airport operations) are expected to grow faster than average, with a very high percentage of those jobs in California.
Cypress College was the first in California to offer an associate degree in the newer field of UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems or drone) technology. Students in this program become well versed in the innovative uses of drones on land, air and sea, plus FAA regulations, communications, and drone propulsion and power.
Today, there’s a growing need for drone operators in a wide range of fields, such as aerial photography, mapping, asset inspections, agriculture, firefighting, and security. Graduates who wish to pursue drone engineering need to continue to a four-year college and earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical, aeronautical, or electrical engineering.