A growing airport in Alcoa means a lot of things.
More visitors, vacationers, business trippers; an expanding hotel, thriving on-campus businesses, an armed forces air base.
But it also means the city of Alcoa itself may be the first place the aviation industry goes for pilots, mechanics, security officers, stewardesses, engineers, air traffic control professionals and a host of other roles vital for an centralized airport.
That’s where Alcoa City Schools’ Career and Technical Education program comes into play.
Patty Thomas, the program’s director, has helped secure a Department of Transportation grant for the past two years to bring aviation-occupation opportunities for students from kindergarten through senior year of high school.
Thomas said labor data show an already robust aviation job market in Blount. Between McGhee Tyson, Cirrus Aircraft or StandardAero, not only are there more opportunities, there are more experts making a pitch to Alcoa students.
Thomas said aviation professionals who have supported the school’s program include Cirrus Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Ben Koloski, StandardAero HR Manager Adam Harris, and members of the local Experimental Aircraft Association. These and others have been a significant part of what the school is doing to connect students with local career markets.
Creativity meets opportunity
“We’re trying to be really creative,” Thomas said.
The aviation career exploration program is spread out through grades and classes, and it takes into account all the possible flight careers in the area.
“That’s kind of how I wrote the grant, I didn’t want kids to (think) they could only be a pilot or a flight attendant,” Thomas said. “There are airframe and power plant technician jobs available, jobs in marketing through McGhee Tyson ... air traffic control.”
What does the grant look like in practice?
UT LifeStar helicopters have flown onto campus and a Black Hawk helicopter landed in November; there is now a fully-equipped flight simulator in the school; the Alcoa police and sanitation are held up as examples of how useful drones are.
“There’s more to aviation than just pilots and flight attendants,” Thomas said. “And the need is not just here in Blount County and East Tennessee. It’s nationwide.”
Need for maintenance workers
Vice President of Marketing and Air Service Development with the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority Jim Evans pinpointed the need he’s heard about from area businesses.
“It’s one of these things that, if there are not a bunch of skilled people ready to roll, that will create a massive problem,” Evans said. “It’s an issue for maintenance technicians. It’s a big issue for pilots as well. It’s an industry problem as well, not just a Knox (and) Blount County problem.”
Evans agreed there is continued growth ahead. Needs for more space as well as more personnel point to a rapidly changing airport, he said, one that could be completely different in 10 years
Even though the authority is not directly involved in workforce development, the maintenance businesses on the airport’s grounds means airlines add additional scheduled flights to the area.
“Having those ... facilitates here means we have more flights than perhaps we would otherwise,” Evans said. “We want to make sure (they) grow and continue to get the people they need to operate because ultimately they translate back into flights for the public.”
That’s not to mention the Air National Guard’s operation which, though it’s separate from primary airport operations, needs maintenance workers, too.
“We’re happy that the educators have bought in on our position that something needs to be done,” Evans said. “We’ve got everybody talking and I’m not sure what the solution is going to be. What we’re hoping it will be is some sort of aviation technician training program here in our region.”
He added that though there a lot of people with their “hands in the pie” right now, he doesn’t know what the ultimate solution will be.
In many ways, Alcoa’s CTE program is the only entity currently networking with regional entities to create some sort of initiative that could be that solution.
Aviation is something the school has invested in, but it’s not a full-fledged program. When Thomas was working on the first grant, she visited Cleveland City Schools in Bradley County and met with the CTE director there who started a “full-fledged” aviation program of study through the Tennessee Department of Education.
“We’re not to that point yet,” Thomas admitted. But, given a few factors, they may be headed that way. “I think initially I was of the impression of, Alcoa is so close to the airport, why have we never explored that particular route of careers... for students?”
In order to grow the program, she said there needs to be proof of enthusiasm from students about what they’re good at and what they’re interested in. That’s why the school is giving interest and aptitude tests to seventh and eighth graders this year.
“There’s always been a push of ‘Patty, we need to have cosmetology! Patty, we need to have culinary!’ But I’ve got to see if the student interest is there and does it match the aptitude,” Thomas said.
Everything ties back into funding, so it’s unclear if the program will be able to grow or if it will simply remain a mainstay of CTE offerings.
But for now Thomas is confident about securing another grant to provide for aviation-adjacent projects and promotions next year and hopes that the interest will be ongoing.
That may be inevitable since Alcoa is developing some students’ interest in aviation very young: Students at the elementary school are already learning how to code and fly drones, two things many adults struggle to wrap their minds around.
All the better to have young minds ready for opportunities in an area that may be ripe with need in the coming years.
Thomas said that, according to data from the Blount Partnership, 33.3% of the Blount County aviation labor market is 45 to 54 years old; 22.3% are 55 to 64 and 4% are 65 and older.
“That kind of shows you the imperative of having young people in these careers,” Thomas said.