After at least two years of trying to start an aviation maintenance school at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, the plan is coming to fruition.
The School District of Manatee County, Manatee Technical College and the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority, in partnership with Sarasota’s Suncoast Technical College and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, will open the Aviation Maintenance Technician School at the airport, tentatively scheduled for a 2024 opening.
The ability to begin designs and construction of the school is a result of $5.5 million being allocated for the project in the 2022 state budget Gov. Ron DeSantis signed June 2.
“It’s exciting, and we’re grateful we can begin to move forward,” said Valerie Viands, the director of Manatee Technical College. “We feel like the timing is critical with the shortages of not only mechanics but pilots. A technical college works with the community to determine workforce needs, and this is an opportunity to meet the workforce needs, begin a program and work with multiple entities to make it a reality.”
Viands said the $5.5 million will go toward the groundbreaking and beginning of construction on the hangar, hiring a program manager and purchasing equipment necessary for the Airframe Mechanics program and Aviation Powerplant Mechanics program.
The program manager will be tasked with working with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure all the equipment and everything necessary for the school is compliant with FAA regulations.
Once the school is opened, MTC will partner with Suncoast Technical College to provide career certificate workforce training for students to become airframe mechanics and aviation powerplant mechanics. The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee will prepare students for licenses in aviation maintenance as well as advanced training in the aviation industry.
“They will be supervised by professionals in their field,” Viands said. “The instructors that are hired already would be certified and have a significant amount of years of experience in the field.”
Students enrolled at the school will complete both the Airframe Mechanics program and Aviation Powerplant Mechanics program within a year and a half to two years.
As the school begins, Viands hopes between 20 and 25 students would be in its inaugural class. Like many of MTC’s programs, the aviation school will have enrollment twice per year, meaning potentially 40 to 50 students could graduate and be placed in jobs each year.
Aviation Maintenance Technician School students will have a combination of classroom work and hands-on experience in the two programs.
Students will work with planes that are being retired and are designated for the school.
“Any time you can train at the facility where someone does the job, you see it, you hear it, it becomes real,” Viands said. “There are some schools that have the aviation program on campus, and they have the engines but the whole aircraft might not be there. This way, they’re right there. They have it right outside the classroom, and they can see and touch it and be involved with the actual experience. They can hear the engines, and they can taxi the plane right there for testing and things like that.”
Viands said the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is the perfect location for the Aviation Maintenance Technician School because it can draw students from not only Manatee and Sarasota counties but also other surrounding counties.
“Looking around currently, where would you find quality people to come in and do the mechanics on the airplane”? Viands said. “You would have to recruit from out of the area or potentially out of state. We’re hoping that by bringing it right there to the airport, we can provide the need and then be a hub to have opportunities for students to go other places and seek other opportunities where there are mechanic jobs available.”
Rick Piccolo, the president and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, said graduates of the school will have opportunities across the world because every country has an airport.
“This is a great opportunity to open up a career field for children in this community and give them a worldwide economic opportunity,” Piccolo said.
Piccolo said the school will help attract major maintenance operators to the Sarasota-Manatee region.
“Having a pipeline of talent that can be easily fed makes it easier to attract major maintenance operators to the airport,” Piccolo said. “We’ve been working with the Economic Development Council on trying to attract that. Attracting companies to the area provides more economic opportunity, impact on the economy and jobs.”
Piccolo said the demand for aviation mechanics is only increasing with Boeing estimating the industry will need 626,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, on average, about 14,400 openings for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians are projected each year over the decade. The average salary for aviation mechanics and service technicians in Florida is $65,050.
“It’s a well paying job,” Piccolo said. “Kids who are graduating high school and who are not university bound can go to MTC and get a mechanics certificate and go to work. It offers them a great occupation that as they get experience and work can lead to a great career field.”