The pilot and mechanic shortage has affected so much in our industry, from airlines to flight schools to universities and colleges, including Polk State College in Florida.
In just the last few years, the college has expanded its aerospace programs to help meet the increasing demand for qualified employees.
“I don’t know the date and time that it happened, but the airlines and corporate flight departments woke up, and they were like, ‘you know what, we should probably, I don’t know, build the next generation or something like that,’” says Eric Crump, program director of Polk State Aerospace. “And they came to education and asked ‘how can we help?’”
From a single associate’s degree program in 2013 in professional pilot science, Polk State’s aviation program has grown to include the first and only bachelor’s degree in aviation offered by a community college in the state of Florida.
When it launched, the college saw its demographics change.
“It was crazy because 95% of our population is from Central Florida, but as soon as this bachelor’s degree came online, we started getting interest from potential students in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and all over the place,” he recalls.
That degree program was then followed by an associate’s degree in Aerospace Administration, “which is a business degree for aviation,” he explains. That degree is offered entirely online, but also includes an internship program, which gives students practical experience in the industry.
“Textbooks are fine. They have their purpose,” he says. “But you really learn when you’re out there in the field. And, unfortunately, in higher education these days, the first time somebody actually does the job is their first day when they get a job and they have no prior work experience. And so what we want to do is make sure that all of our students have an opportunity for an internship.”
I call it the Swiss Army knife degree, because it works for 20 year olds, it works for 40 year olds, and it works for people who are trying to find their way in aviation.”Polk State’s Eric Crump
The program is also a boon to people who are already working in the field, such as baggage handlers or gate agents, who need the academic credentials to move up to different roles.
“I call it the Swiss Army knife degree, because it works for 20 year olds, it works for 40 year olds, and it works for people who are trying to find their way in aviation,” he says. “They know they want to work in aviation, but they don’t know exactly what they want to do. It’s a great holistic degree. It’s a little bit of FBO, a little bit of airport, a little bit of airline, a little bit of flight school.”
Two years ago, the college launched its Aviation Maintenance Management degree, a collaborative effort with Traviss Technical College, which has a Part 147 A&P school on the SUN ’n FUN grounds at Lakeland-Linder International Airport, as well as other A&P schools in the area, including the National Aviation Academy in Clearwater and the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Orlando.
Once students earn their A&P certification, they can then enroll in the degree program at Polk State, which gives them 30 credits for the A&P towards a 60-credit degree.
“So, half of your degree is done when you walk in the door, because you have your A&P,” he explains. “Then we teach the supervision and management stuff. A lot of these guys who are doing their A&P don’t plan on being a line maintenance technician for their entire career. So what we are doing is training them for their second job, before they even get their first job.”
The additional programs have contributed to explosive growth at Polk State.
“We started the program in 2013 with one degree and nine students,” Crump says. “Today it has 287 students in four different degree programs.”
Polk State also offers dual enrollment courses to the students at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a high school on the SUN ‘n FUN grounds. That means the students are taking college level courses right in their high school.
And many of those students become full-time students at Polk State after high school graduation.
On the flip side, Polk State students are involved in SUN ’n FUN, with many doing internships for the organization and working as volunteers year round.
During this year’s fly-in, held in April, Polk State College again sponsored the forums, which are held at the high school. Polk State also sponsors the student tours, which take bus-loads of local students from area elementary, middle and high schools on a tour of the fly-in grounds.
“We think it’s important to build the next generation, so we start them early,” he says.
We think it’s important to build the next generation, so we start them early.”Eric Crump
In fact, Crump says that while efforts at building aviation into high school curriculums is great, it may be too little too late.
“We have to get serious about recruitment of kids at a much younger age, younger than probably we’ve ever really focused on before,” he says.
He thinks about his own daughters, Penelope, 11, and Harper, 9. With both parents pilots — their mother Jennilyn is a pilot who has a career as an airport planner — the girls have good role models in the aviation industry.
But Crump says it’s not important if his daughters become pilots.
“I don’t need them to become pilots. I don’t even need them to have a career in aviation,” he says. “But I do want them to know what aviation is and what it does. And I want them to be aviation evangelists.”
“We’re not going to be able to change the overall problem with recruitment in aviation if we don’t change the message,” he continues. “And that is that it’s not just a job. There is enjoyment in it. There is a good, long-term career in aviation.”