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Lake Superior College's aviation maintenance program cleared for takeoff

Lake Superior College President Patrick Johns displays the approval letter from the FAA for the new aviation maintenance technician program the college plans to start up this fall. He was joined at Monday’s news conference by Duluth Mayor Don Ness (left) and state Rep. Mary Murphy at Duluth International Airport. DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE/Bob King

DULUTH — For several years Lake Superior College has worked to add an aviation maintenance technician program to its offerings — it even has some equipment purchased from a previous attempt — and last week one was finally approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The college announced the start of the 103-credit, two-year program Monday, also launching a short recruitment period for the first day of classes Aug. 25. The program was developed in response to Duluth’s growing aviation industry and the need to offer training, said Patrick Johns, president of the college.

And that training, he said, “was provided locally nowhere until now.”

One local aviation company — AAR Aircraft Services — said it’d be able to immediately offer 60 full-time jobs to licensed mechanics. And those are jobs that would pay between $45,000 and $60,000 a year before overtime, said Mark Ketterer, director of maintenance for the Duluth base of the company.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development anticipates that more than 540 aircraft mechanic service jobs will be open by 2020, with “hundreds” of those in Duluth, Johns said.

“We’re really excited about the school and getting it up and running,” said Ketterer, who worked with the college in its efforts.

The only other college in Minnesota to offer such coursework is Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls. But that posed a problem for many Duluthians who didn’t want to move to northwestern Minnesota for two years, said Mayor Don Ness, who helped bring the program to fruition.

The lab-intensive training for airframe and power plant maintenance mechanics will be housed at Lake Superior College for the first year. Nearly 25 students are expected, but about 50 could be accommodated. The certificate awarded by the FAA allows up to 100. The college is pursuing larger space at the Duluth International Airport for the following year.

Johns acknowledged the recruiting time was short, but said potential students “really have been knocking on our door.”

One student had already enrolled Monday morning after the official announcement. The school wasn’t allowed to market its new potential offering until it received the FAA certification, but now plans to roll out a campaign immediately. Officials anticipate the area has some former Northwest Airline workers who might want retraining.

Students will be trained to repair, inspect, adjust and diagnose aircraft engines and other parts of planes. A lot of the work is preventive maintenance, Ketterer said.

Because of the growth of AAR, the multinational corporation that has had a base in Duluth just shy of two years, it has had to add contract workers from other parts of the country to its location here.

Because by nature those workers come and go, Ketterer said, “we are looking for homegrown talent.”

His company also needs licensed mechanics at bases in Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, he said, citing a shortage that began when airlines closed maintenance shops.

Now there is competition between companies such as AAR and Cirrus Aircraft for available mechanics, Ketterer said, that he expects to remain.

The effort to add the program began again in earnest about 18 months ago, but the college first had to work through long processes set forth by the FAA and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Funding was also an issue, Johns said, but equipment purchased previously through Winona State University’s defunct program and donations promised from area aviation companies are helpful, he said.

AAR was a company that chose Duluth because of its commitment to meet its workforce, Ness said, and colleges are asked to be responsive to the needs of communities.

“That is the importance of this new program at Lake Superior College,” he said.