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. It's 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,” says Valerie Viands, the director of Manatee Technical College. “We feel like the timing is critical with the shortages of not only mechanics but pilots."
Viands says 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.
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. USF 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 says. “The instructors who 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. Then the job opportunities are plentiful: There are 14,000 projected openings for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians each year over the next decade, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“It’s a well paying job,” Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport CEO Rick Piccolo says. “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.”
Viands hopes between 20 and 25 students will be in the 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 says. “There are some schools that have the aviation program on campus, and they have the engines but the whole aircraft might not be there."
Viands says 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 says. “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.”
Piccolo says graduates of the school will have opportunities worldwide because every country has an airport. The program will also help attract major maintenance operators to the region.
“Having a pipeline of talent that can be easily fed makes it easier to attract major maintenance operators to the airport,” Piccolo says. “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.”