Local aerospace companies enjoy a ready pipeline of entry-level workers from Pima Community College's highly regarded aviation-maintenance program.

Officials in the broader aerospace, defense and manufacturing sectors hope to duplicate that success with a new program to fill a shortage in skilled machinists.

Pima's aviation-tech program, which provides Federal Aviation Administration-certified training in structural repair, airframe and powerplant maintenance and avionics, produces grads who are often offered jobs before they finish school.

"It's a real good career. There's a lot of money in it - it's a good investment," said Ramón Peralta, a 20-year-old Pima aviation student who plans to continue with airframe and powerplant classes after finishing his structural-repair degree this summer.

Pima's aviation program is an important source of workers for Bombardier Aerospace, which has been expanding its commercial and business-jet maintenance operations at Tucson International Airport.

"Our preference is to hire locally, and we have a very good relationship with the local community college," said Stephen McCoy, general manager of Bombardier's commercial aircraft service.

Bombardier, which has added nearly 150 jobs in the past two years, recently hired 50 of Pima's graduates, McCoy noted.

Other Pima grads are placed with local companies including Ascent Aviation Services, Marana Aerospace Solutions and Universal Avionics, while others are snapped up nationally by the likes of Gulfstream Aerospace, Southwest Airlines and engine maker Pratt & Whitney, Pima aviation-tech program manager Tom Hinman said.

The program awarded 110 certificates and associate degrees last year, and 98 percent of students passed their FAA certification tests, Hinman said.

In March, 25 students completed their studies at the Pima Aviation Technology Center - and 21 of those reported having had job offers before graduation, he said.

Machinist shortage

While aviation companies have come to rely on Pima for trained workers, other employers in the aerospace and associated defense and manufacturing industries face a shortage of workers.

"We just can't get enough machinists," said Howard Stewart, president and CEO of AGM Container Controls, a supplier of environmental controls and sensors to the defense industry that employs about 100 people.

The company has a particularly hard time finding workers qualified to operate Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) equipment like automated mills and lathes, which are used to produce precision parts to exacting tolerances. The job requires good mathematical skills as a foundation for programming and running such equipment, Stewart said.

"It seems like they just don't want to do the math," he said.

A new program aims to address the problem by recruiting high-schoolers into the machining trade.

The program intends to link local manufacturing employers with high schools, Pima Community College and Pima County's OneStop Career Centers to create internships and apprenticeships with a curriculum based on industry standards, said Jeremy Schalk, vice president of Tucson-based Hi-Tech Machining and Engineering Inc.

The program will be piloted this summer at Tucson High School and Desert View High School, Schalk said.

With Pima, the group has developed two tiers of training, with certificates awarded for each level, so students who gain their first-tier certificates can begin working while taking second-tier training. The group also is working to gain dual-enrollment credit for local high school students with Pima, Schalk said.

The program partners also are developing a third-tier program to be accredited for certification by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, the industry standard, Schalk said.

In recent months, the machining group has begun an outreach to high schools, students and parents, with job fairs and local shop tours. The group has developed a brochure targeting parents and students.

"Machining has fallen out of favor with parents and children," Schalk said at a recent meeting of the Workforce Investment Board. "People believe it's a dirty job, and not a very good-paying job."

But nationwide, machinists were paid an average wage of $19.48 per hour in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. CNC machine operators made an average of $17.56, while more highly trained CNC programmers were paid an average $23.30 per hour, according to the BLS.

Replacing retirees

Meanwhile, the sky seems to be the limit for Pima's aviation-tech program, as it has adapted to meet growing industry needs.

The program - one of a handful in the nation that has commercial jetliners on hand for student training - has expanded training in composite materials and is building up an avionics program it launched five years ago.

Hinman said the school works closely with the industry to assess job needs, and with changing technologies and an aging workforce, future demand is only expected to increase.

He cited industry research showing that the industry will need 7,000 new aviation-maintenance technicians annually through 2033.

An aging workforce is expected to drive those numbers.

By 2016, Hinman said, about 25 percent of all aviation workers will be nearing retirement.

Aviation maintenance is a good career, he said, with decent pay right out of school.

Recent graduates of Pima's aviation program have been hired at wages of $16 to $18.75 per hour, Hinman said.

Nationally, aircraft mechanics earned an average wage of $26.20 per hour in 2011, with avionics techs earning a little more, according to federal statistics.

Some of those jobs will be filled by veterans like Maurice Brown, a 31-year-old former Army staff sergeant who was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan during his eight-year career.

"I've always liked airplanes since I was a young child, and it was something I always wanted to do," said Brown, who is on track to finish his airframe and power-plant degree by next summer.

After attending a private aviation-maintenance school in Virginia that had only small planes to work on, Brown said he was stunned to see Pima's array of commercial jetliners.

"When I got to Pima and the (Boeing) 727s, I was shocked," said Brown. "I like the hands-on (training) - it's the best part of the program."

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.