Cleared for Takeoff: Region’s Aviation Jobs Initiative Being Used to Entice Aerospace Employers to Tennessee
September 8, 2014
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  • BLOUNTVILLE — The region’s aviation jobs initiative has resulted in a greater effort to make Tennessee a major player in the aerospace industry, Tri-Cities Airport Authority commissioners have been told.

    Back in late June, Northeast State Community College and Bell Helicopter’s Piney Flats operation rolled out an education collaboration with the intent of helping Bell and other potential aviation employers attract and develop local talent.

    The move got the attention of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, which is now actively reaching out to other aerospace employers, according toNETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership Chief Executive Officer Clay Walker.

    The airport could be a huge beneficiary of the initiative because it has state-certified aviation parks on the southside airfield waiting to be developed.

    “These are very good paying jobs in this (aviation) sector,” Walker told Airport Authority commissioners at a meeting last Thursday. “It’s highly competitive to get these jobs. Every arrow you have is very huge. … It goes as a big check in the box when companies are talking to us.” Core classes in the collaboration began this fall on Northeast State’s Blountville campus — located next to Tri-Cities Regional Airport — with specific aviation courses to be offered in spring 2015.

    Bell Helicopter’s footprint inside the Tri-County Industrial Park in Piney Flats has been expanding with production buildings and business segments employing about 500 people.

    Bell is expected to provide training instructors to help Northeast State develop aviationrelated course content and create craftsmen with mechanical and electrical skills.

    In the future, additional objectives include developing a flight school and four-year aviation curriculum possibly to be offered at East Tennessee State University.

    The courses are within Northeast State’s Divisions of Advanced and Business Technologies leading to either a two-year degree in general technology or certificate in industrial operations.

    The education collaboration and aviation jobs initiative, announced to business leaders and elected officials on the future site of Northeast State’s $35.5 million Emerging Technologies complex, were founded by Tennessee state Rep. Tony Shipley, Bell Helicopter Training Manager Richard Blevins, and aviation advocate Hank Somers.

    “The trick is to get people employed here in our region. … We want to create a passion for aviation,” Somers told Airport Authority commissioners during a presentation.

    Blevins noted not enough trained workers are available locally for Bell, and the company needed to recruit from outside, according to Somers.

    “We needed to fix that,” Somers said.

    A concept was sketched out on a yellow pad, while Somers said he and Shipley, an Air Force veteran, toured Bell’s facilities in 2013.

    The operation was previously known in Northeast Tennessee as Edwards & Associates, which was founded in 1977. In 1999, Bell Helicopter and parent company Textron purchased Edwards and its subsidiary companies, and subsequently fully integrated the location by 2011.

    Bell customizes and completes light and medium aircraft for non-military customers. Old helicopter frames are getting new technology and state-of-the-art glass.

    “Bell does a lot of conversion work,” Somers said of Bell’s production operation. “They had 110 helicopters in conversion work, with each one selling for $8 million to $10 million. They are ramping up to 220 conversions a year. … They bring in helicopters, strip them and repaint them, and the neat thing about this is 70-75 percent of these are sold outside the United States so those dollars are coming this way.”

    While military veterans and others are being recruited for jobs at Bell, Somers pointed out a key component of the jobs initiative has been reaching out to young kids in K-12 schools.

    “These are the same skills you would need in auto repair, electrical, and other trades,” Somers said of the courses being offered at Northeast State.

    Walker told a bevy of site selection consultants — who were invited by NETWORKS to the August night NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway — about the education collaborative and jobs initiative.

    “They were overwhelmingly impressed with the airport, … our work is going to pay off here,” Walker told Airport Authority commissioners.