Coronavirus And Crashing Aviation Industry Hollow Out A Kansas Tech College's Pitch

May 5, 2020

WICHITA, Kansas — It’s a simple, tempting pitch: hands-on training tailored for specific, high-demand jobs.

It led thousands of students to enroll in Kansas technical colleges. But COVID-19 and a collapsing aviation industry undid that promise.

Hands-on learning can’t replace the online lessons that social distancing demands. And many of those high-demand jobs that schools promised on the other side of a certification wilted with the economy. Others disappeared with the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

Few things illustrate how highly specialized tech school training can go wrong like the problems with the jetliner. It's stretched past a year and made some plane-building skills irrelevant.

Education experts say the Boeing example and COVID-19 also test a key premise of some tech education programs designed to train workers for the needs of specific companies. Yet they say schools like WSU Tech can adapt.

“Right now, it’s a triple whammy,” said Lauren Eyster, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute. “(But) they are, especially Wichita, pretty well poised to respond to this.”

Hands-on appeal

The rapid boom of Kansas tech colleges stands out against the state’s more traditionally academic schools.

Stagnant enrollment began troubling the state’s universities since 2013. Community colleges fared worse over the same period, when enrollment dropped more than 15%.

That distressed the Kansas educators. A decade ago, they forecasted an economy held back by a lack of college graduates needed for high-skilled jobs.

Tech colleges proved to be the one bright exception to the state’s enrollment downturn. While they still taught only a fraction of the students learning at the state universities, tech college enrollment has jumped more than 51% since 2013.

A large part of the appeal? Hands-on training.

Professors still lecture. Students still read from textbooks. But students also handle welding torches, rivet guns and sanders. It can take two years at a university before a student begins any core classes. Tech schools thrive on getting students onto a replica factory floor within a few weeks.

But with the coronavirus, hands-on learning went from selling point to weakness.

In March, before the state’s shelter-in-place order, colleges were already canceling in-person classes. WSU Tech had moved its lecturers and some of its less complex training online. But many of those lessons can’t be taught over videoconference.

“It’s really hard to rig an aircraft in a virtual environment,” said James Hall, dean of Aviation Technologies at WSU Tech. “But we’re doing as much as we can to get the students ready.”

The Federal Aviation Administration requires in-person training for many plane-building jobs. While the agency lifted some of those rules because of the virus, some of that training still has to happen on site.

WSU Tech hopes to bring small batches of students on campus in June, assuming no state or county shelter-in-place orders extend past May.

Jefferson Martin, a Washburn Tech electrical student, tries to connect wires on a switch board to power on a light bulb.
Credit Chris Neal / For the Kansas News Service

Jobs no longer there

The trouble with hands-on training will eventually go away.

But the one-two punch of the coronavirus and the grounding of the 737 Max to Kansas’ aviation economy will have longer lasting effects.

Two years ago, the Kansas aviation industry looked untouchable. At the end of 2018, Spirit AeroSystems announced plans to create 1,400 new jobs.  

The biggest challenge was having a skilled workforce to fill those jobs. WSU Tech was willing to pay students to move to the state and get trained for them.

Then two crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes led to the grounding of the airliner.

Economists said that wouldn’t hurt the industry much as long as the plane returned to the air in a few months. But March marked a year since the Max last flew. Spirit laid off 2,800 workers in January — twice as many as it planned to hire in 2018. A

Then the coronavirus ripped through the U.S. economy. Both Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation began furloughing workers, and last week, Spirit announced a round of layoffs for nearly 1,500 workers. 

The state’s tech schools had been a training pipeline for those companies, but now that pipeline is disconnected.

Tech schools now must adapt to an economy without employees begging for workers. The largest challenge for that change is cost. Technical training is expensive. Schools must either find the money for new equipment needed for that hands-training, or find ways to retrofit what they already own.

Education experts say tech colleges have two advantages over universities when shifting to the economy. First, they have stronger ties to the local business community and therefore a better understanding of their needs. And second, they don’t have to go through lengthy curriculum reviews to get new programs started.

“That’s part of the beauty of who we are,” said Sheree Utash, president of WSU Tech.

Back to school

Tech schools often tailor their programs based on what employers say they need. WSU Tech cut its sheet metal program from eight weeks to six because Spirit needed the workers quickly. Students train on the same equipment used by the companies offering jobs well before graduation day.

All college programs face a balancing act between specific and general education. Tech college’s strength comes from tipping that balance to focus on the needs of a local economy and local employers.

But that leaves graduates less employable ]when their niche in the economy goes south.

“The tragedy in this, especially for people with the most specific education, is they rely on the employer being there and the job being there,” said Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “And that’s no longer the case.”

But Kansas educators say tech school graduates get more than an education only useful for one employer.

“I know of no program that we have that we only train to one company,” said Scott Smathers, vice president of workforce development for the Kansas Board of Regents.

Recent WSU Tech graduates and laid-off aviation workers can go back to the college for retraining. While Spirit doesn’t need workers to build any more planes at the moment, those still flying need maintenance workers.

Educators say that’s the true strength of technical education. Students get high-paying jobs quickly with minimal time and money invested. They then can eventually go back to school.

Chris Coleman got hired as an aircraft painter at Textron Aviation after one semester at WSU Tech. Yet he got hooked by the hands-on training and immediately signed up for more classes. He’s now working toward a two-year associate’s degree.

“Crazy enough, I’m actually looking to stay even longer and take another program,” Coleman said. “So I’ll have been turning WSU Tech into almost a four-year college.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.

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