By Barrie Barber
FAIRBORN — An initiative announced Friday aims to solve an ironic problem with Ohio’s economy — in spite of high unemployment rates there are more than 10,000 unfilled jobs in the state’s aerospace industry.
Wright State University will be home to the Aerospace Professional Development Center, a first-of-its-kind outreach initiative in Ohio to train, educate and attract skilled workers into the ranks of the aerospace industry, officials said Friday.
Ohio has more than 10,700 unfilled jobs in the aerospace and defense-related industries, according to state Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield.
“The Aerospace Professional Development Center will close that gap,” Wright State University President David R. Hopkins said at a press conference Friday that unveiled the initiative.
The university will spend $8 million in state funding on the initiative gained through casino license fees.
The focus on jobs arrives at a time when other states, particularly Georgia and Alabama, have competed aggressively to attract aerospace work from Ohio, Widener said.
“Our claim today is you better step up because you can’t have our aerospace industry jobs,” he said.
The aerospace and defense sector counts 100,000 workers and 1,200 companies in Ohio alone, officials said.
Aerospace firms face an aging workforce with one estimate that about half of the employees at the top 20 firms nationwide will be eligible for retirement by 2016, according to an Aerospace Industries Association official.
At the same time, economic development leaders have pinned their hopes on the Miami Valley becoming a leader in the burgeoning unmanned aerial vehicle industry.
With Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at the epicenter, the region has pursued UAV research and development, acquisition and manufacturing while it competes to land one of six sites across the nation to test integration of remotely piloted drones into manned civilian airspace by 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to announce those sites by the end of the year.
The jobs center will open Nov. 1 at the Wright State Research Institute’s new location, 4035 Colonel Glenn Highway. A Web site portal for job seekers, students and employers is already online at www.ohioaerospacecareers.org. “We’re trying to get this running very quickly,” said S. Narayanan, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Wright State.
At Wright-Patterson, home to 29,000 civilian and military employees, the Air Force Research Laboratories alone typically need 100 new researchers and scientists a year, said Daryl Mayer, base spokesman. “Just keeping our pipeline filled with trained employees is a challenge,”said Morley Stone, chief scientist at the 711th Human Performance Wing.
The first-of-its-kind aerospace jobs and education center will serve as a model for other industries in the state, from health care to advanced manufacturing, Hopkins said.
The focus on aerospace jobs is meant to match employers with qualified employees. But it’s also more: The Wright State initiative will work with state colleges and universities to align curriculum with the aerospace industry’s needs, said Wright State spokeswoman Stephanie Gottschlich.
The center will help current aerospace workers, college students and recent graduates and workers from other fields obtain education and professional certifications, internships and jobs.
A new STEM Leadership Institute at the center hopes to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers in students in the sixth grade or higher. The institute will work with the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, the Dayton Regional STEM School and the Air Force Research Laboratory Discovery Lab.
A STEM Leap Ahead program will give high school students internship and job experience and a chance to compete for money to attend Wright State.
“It’s critical to have a pipeline of students,” said Dennis J. Andersh, a senior vice president with defense contractor SAIC in Beavercreek. “This is not something that will be solved overnight.”
Klaus Dannenberg, deputy executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Reston, Va., said the Wright State center has potential and could prove most beneficial to bring workers into aerospace who want to transition from other career fields.
“If that’s one of the things that they’re trying to do … that would be a phenomenally invaluable role to play that I think is generally missing,” he said.
Engineering and technology fields face a retention issue among younger engineers and scientists, he added. Many choose to leave the field after five years or so, often because of the slow pace of projects. But it’s not uncommon for them to want to return years later, he said.
Targeting STEM education outreach has potential to expand the workforce of commercial aviation employees, he said. Boeing and Airbus are backlogged with years of aircraft orders.
Richard L. Aboulafia, a Teal Group defense analyst in Fairfax, Va., said the aging ranks of aerospace workers require a way to reach the next generation of skilled employees.
“Education is one place that government can contribute,” he said. “It really can help.”