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Students Explore Career Options in Aircraft Mechanics

Work: They learn about FAA-approved school where they can train for jobs that pay as much as $20 an hour.


VAN NUYS — They weren't quite Rosie the Riveters.

But the two 12-year-old girls were tickled by the idea that they could be.

There they were, riveting a piece of airplane metal sheeting.

Maria Alejandre, a student at Sepulveda Middle School, giggled a bit as she squeezed the trigger on the rivet gun. It emitted a loud rat-a-tat and knocked the rivet right through the metal, where it was stopped by her partner, Carrie Jones, holding the bucking board.

They loved the story of how women took over aircraft construction jobs during World War II, inspiring the image of Rosie the Riveter, and said they could definitely see themselves working as aircraft mechanics.

The two were among 90 mostly high school and middle school students checking out the job skills they can learn at the FAA-approved Aircraft Mechanics School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's North Valley Occupational Center.

Located at Van Nuys Airport--the busiest general aviation airport (no scheduled airlines) in the world in terms of takeoffs and landings--the school offers a certificate program in airline mechanics that virtually guarantees jobs for graduates who pass the FAA exam. It takes two years, including summers, to complete the course.

"You don't have to be a pilot to be in the aviation business," Van Nuys Airport manager Ron Kochevar told the students, who were brought to the school by Bridge Focus, a nonprofit Van Nuys organization that works with troubled youths and their families, providing counseling, crisis intervention and other services.

"There are tremendous job opportunities in aviation," added instructor Philip Struyk. "Aviation mechanics take care of the aircraft in every detail. We have more than 800 aircraft [at Van Nuys], at least 110 of them corporate jets. This is also where they do major maintenance on police and fire department helicopters."

And the jobs pay reasonably well, with entry-level positions earning $8 to $20 an hour--a huge selling point for these youngsters, several of whom live in a North Hills residential center and are considered at risk to join gangs.

An FAA-certified mechanic, Struyk said, can work not only for commercial, corporate, private or government air transportation firms, but also for repair shops, companies that manufacture planes and parts and other related businesses. Skilled mechanics and technicians can earn as much as $90,000 a year, plus benefits, Struyk added.

The school also prepares students for jobs in airport operations, and program graduates often go on to specialize in electronics technology, avionics (aircraft electronics), or to get degrees in other engineering fields.

Ramon Cortez, a ninth-grader at Monroe High School who got to start and stop the engine of a Cessna, thinks it would be cool to be a pilot, a career choice that hadn't occurred to him before visiting the school. And if he doesn't get to be a pilot, he said, working on the planes might be just as good.

Craig Walker, director of maintenance with Pacific Holding, one of 15 fixed-base operators at the airport, said FAA-certified mechanics are in such demand now that many companies are advertising for help via the Internet.

And Jim Hansen, service manager at Jet Center, with roughly 200 workers the largest employer on the airfield, notes that his company, which refurbishes and repairs about 500 aircraft a year, mostly Gulfstreams, is looking to hire 150 workers for a new facility being built in Santa Barbara.

The fixed-base operators handle a variety of airport services including fueling, aircraft parking, maintenance, flight instruction and repair work. They sponsored the daylong event and donated more than $20,000 to Bridge Focus to fund 10 scholarships to the school and to help support the organization's drug-prevention, crisis-intervention and other community programs.

Van Nuys Airport helps bring in $920.5 million a year for the Southern California economy, according to figures gathered by the Department of Airports. Of this, $134.8 million is generated from aviation activity on or near the airport.

With 2,000 jobs at the airport itself, the facility also generates ancillary work at nearby sites and businesses.

The airport leases directly to 32 companies, which in turn lease to another 80 tenants, said Kochevar. More than 170,000 visitors fly into Van Nuys each year, spending money on ground transportation, hotels and meals. Van Nuys is the sixth busiest air-traffic control tower--commercial towers included--in the nation.

According to figures released in 1992, employment payroll from aviation activity generates $39 million in direct earnings and about $42 million in non-aviation activity. The airport generates $27 million in state and local taxes.

Experts say the aviation field has bounced back well from the recession. That means the job market for skilled workers is also looking bright.

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