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Oklahoma's Soaring Aerospace Industry Seeks Next Generation of Talent

Nov 09
A jet plane flying in a clear blue sky - such a familiar image, but just a tiny piece of what the aerospace industry represents. And that industry is part of Oklahoma's economic pulse, to the tune of $11.7 billion in industrial output, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce (ODOC), which identifies the state as one of seven centers in the world for the industry's maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) sector. But changing times and technologies have created a challenge: developing and recruiting a work force, from technicians to executives, qualified to move the MRO sector and the industry into the middle of the century.

"Tinker Air Force Base [in Oklahoma City] is the largest aircraft MRO facility for the U.S. Department of Defense," says Natalie Shirley, Oklahoma's Secretary of Commerce and Tourism, "and the American Airline Maintenance Center in Tulsa is the largest commercial MRO facility in the world." Tinker is the state's largest single-site employer, with a statewide economic impact of $2.79 billion annually, according to the ODOC. Shivakumar Raman, Ph.D., director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Shape Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing (SEAM), says the American facility services its own aircraft as well as those of several competitors; according to Avionics Magazine, the site has a $900 million operating budget.

September 2009's "A Strategic Future for Oklahoma's Aerospace Industry" ("Strategic Future") study, commissioned by the Oklahoma Aerospace Industry Partners, projects that the global MRO market will grow from US$45 billion in 2009 to more than US$68 billion in 2019. The study says that Oklahoma has an opportunity to capture a larger share of that market, pointing out that Tinker AFB outsources approximately $5 billion worth of contracts for MRO work, with only $500 million of that work going to Oklahoma companies. It also suggests that independent MRO companies in the state could bundle their offerings: "Oklahoma's MRO industry has the opportunity to create the one-stop MRO experience for customers through company partnerships and a coordinated effort to integrate supply-chain processes."

The potential for growth is there for the taking; but what's standing in the way? "The Oklahoma work force is going to shrink by 200,000 people in the next 10 years," says Steve Hendrickson, chair of the Governor's Council on Workforce and Economic Development, in June 2009 Tulsa World story. "Aging baby boomers will eventually retire, and when we do, there will be a great sucking sound because there are not people to fill those spots." He believes that much of the "romance and allure" that the aerospace industry held 40 years ago, in the early heyday of the space program, is gone, and that government, education, and industry leaders need to work together to bring young workers into the fold: "If you're an employer and you're not out there working with those [middle school] kids, you might start giving some serious consideration about the quantity of employees and the skill sets you need."

Education is a key step. The "Strategic Future" report suggests that STEM - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - education be enhanced at the K-12 level, with industry partners participating by sponsoring mentoring programs and competitions. At the post-secondary level, Oklahoma's universities are joining the effort with targeted training programs. Raman says research and development efforts must be shared through education at the major universities that support these technologies, as well as work force development and training: "The state's leading universities, in partnership with aerospace leadership from industry and the Department of Defense, must lead this change for sustaining this industry and its jobs within the state." The SEAM program he leads - a joint venture with Oklahoma State University and the University of Tulsa - provides industry training, research, and commercialization opportunities for students as well as industry professionals.

Economic development officials are also providing financial incentives for training and for retention and recruitment of qualified workers. One example is the state's Engineer Workforce Bill, which provides tax credits and tuition reimbursement to engineering graduates who agree to work for an Oklahoma aerospace company, and to companies that hire engineers, with additional credit for hiring from Oklahoma educational institutions. The program went into effect in January 2009, so no financial data is available yet, but Shirley says a number of companies, including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and the Federal Aviation Administration, have taken part.

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