Louisiana makes up for late start

Timothy Boone
October 2018

Thanks to continued growth at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and activity at
aircraft maintenance facilities in Shreveport and Lake Charles, the aerospace
industry is one of nine sectors in the Louisiana economy with the greatest potential
for economic development growth.  

Louisiana Economic Development (LED) said it is working to attract new
manufacturing, distribution, assembly and other operations within the aerospace
sector that increase the amount of out-of-state sales by Louisiana operations.

About 10,350 people work in the aerospace industry in the Bayou State, according to
figures from LED. That’s down from the nearly 11,100 aerospace workers there were
in 2010, but LED officials said those numbers reflect the slowdown in the offshore oil
and gas industry which was caused by sustained low prices. That has reduced the
demand for some jobs associated with helicopter support activity.  

Despite the drop in aerospace workers, wages are high. LED said the average
annual pay per aerospace job is nearly $74,000, well above the state’s median
annual household income, which tops out at just over $45,000.

Aerospace has been a component of the Louisiana economy for decades, and the
state completed a key industry study in 2009 that emphasized aerospace as one of
its leading economic development opportunities. Louisiana’s estimated 10,350
aerospace jobs reflects a narrowly defined manufacturing and support sector. The
extended aviation sector, including airports, supports 60,000 jobs with a $7 billion
economic output, and the state’s military installations generate an additional $8
billion in output.

LED officials note the state continues to see employment growth at Michoud, with
major aerospace players such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sinter Metal
Technologies and Advance Cutting Solutions adding jobs.

This year, Western Global Airlines announced plans to set up a maintenance
operation in Shreveport and Citadel Completions said it would open a similar facility
in Lake Charles. Metro Aviation, one of the nation’s largest providers of air medical
transport helicopters, is expanding in Shreveport.

Haynes International in Arcadia is a leading fabricator of titanium hydraulic tubing for
global aircraft manufacturers, and AvEx of New Iberia is a global leader in the
painting of aircraft exteriors.

“These employers and assets should lead to long-term aerospace employment
growth for Louisiana in the future,” said Gary Perilloux, LED spokesman.

Paul Helton, LED FastStart director, said the biggest problem is the state in the past
didn’t emphasize aerospace jobs. FastStart is Louisiana’s innovative workforce
training program, offered through LED for major economic development projects.

“I hate to say it, but we’re just starting,” Helton said. “We have a number of programs
in place, but we never took aerospace seriously until the last few years.”

For too long, economic development and job creation in Louisiana was centered on
the oil and gas or agriculture sectors. Helton said efforts are underway to diversify
the Louisiana economy and the state is looking at the successes it has had over the
past few years in creating information technology jobs as a model for what aerospace
could become.

As part of that effort, the state has addressed the needs of the aerospace workforce
and made investments in job training. Pathways have been set up so high school
students can dual enroll at local technical colleges, allowing them to work on
certification while they earn a high school diploma.

More detailed training has also been set up. The state has worked to establish
training programs at the Southern University campus in Shreveport for airframe and
powerplant technician jobs. This is one of four Federal Aviation Administration
certified programs in Louisiana, that teach students about aircraft structures and
systems and the engines that power them.

Helton said the Southern University program was modified at the request of Western
Global Airlines, a cargo freight company. In May, Western Global announced it would
open a fleet maintenance hub at Shreveport Regional Airport, a move that will create
170 jobs.

This tailored program will not only teach students how to use specific tools to
maintain freight planes, but it will also discuss Western Global’s company culture and
procedures, Helton said.

This is one of the services FastStart offers to meet specific workforce needs and plug
in training gaps, he said. A similar program has been set up at Nunez Community
College in Chalmette to build a new two-year program to prepare students for
careers in space technology. Helton said that came out of discussions with Boeing
about the need for workers at Michoud.

“We’re not providing money to a company, we are investing in institutions to build the
workforce,” Helton said.  

The goal is that the programs at Nunez to train workers for Boeing lead to higher
level technical jobs being established at Michoud, which would offer better pay.

“We want to create a capacity and capability to fill that workforce,” Helton said.  

But while there have been efforts to build the aerospace workforce, there’s been a
lack of response from potential employees.

Sunshine Radford, program supervisor of the School of Transportation & Applied
Technologies at SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, said she’s
struggled with enrollment numbers. While SOWELA can have up to 75 students in its
FAA certified aerospace programs “we barely have 35.”

“The numbers are pretty consistent,” she said. “We have to do a lot of outreach to
make the numbers go up.”

While the training at SOWELA may be aimed at Lake Charles employers such as
Citadel Completions, Radford notes that after completing the two year program
graduates can work anywhere across the Gulf Coast or U.S. “We talk that up,” she
said.

In order to enroll in the FAA programs, Radford said participants must have a high
school diploma or GED and they are tested for math and English proficiency. The
program does allow high school students to participate in dual enrollment.

“We want to grow mechanics from high school to the hangar,” Radford said. “That will
get the companies to come and stay here.”

Growing mechanics is important, due to expected demands that will soon be placed
on the aerospace workforce.  Radford said the demand for aviation mechanics is
expected to increase as Baby Boomers age and leave the ranks of the employed. By
2020, 30 percent of the current crop of mechanics are expected to retire, and there’s
concern about who will come along to fill those job.

“We’re not replacing those workers like they used to. No one is taking their place,”
she said. And while demands for offshore jobs are limited, there’s a real need for
aerospace workers in the state. “We have a need for thousands of workers,” Radford
said.

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