BETHEL — Airplanes connect rural Alaska to the world, and all those planes need mechanics to maintain and fix them. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has a severe shortage of aircraft mechanics, and it's expected that a shortage will soon be felt across the world's airline industry.
A new Bethel training program wants to fill the gap with local workers.
Inside a bright white hangar at the Bethel Airport sits a fleet of small, multicolored airplanes.
"We have Cessnas. We have Pipers. We have a Bonanza, a Navajo Chieftain, a Cherokee 140," Mike Hoffman — executive director of Yuut Elitnaurviat, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's adult workforce development program — says as he points around the hangar to some of the most common types of planes flown in the region.
Yuut Elitnaurviat is opening an aircraft mechanic school in Bethel. Hoffman takes pride that many of the program's planes and the resources to get them here were donated.
"I went up to McGrath and took the wings off the blue one that's in the back there with my brother Jeff, and threw it on a barge that my other brother was the captain of, and he brought it down for free," Hoffman said. "It's just people understanding this school and what it's going to bring to the region."
What it will bring is local people earning local training to fill critical local jobs in the region of the state that has the lowest per-capita income and highest unemployment rate.
"Virtually every airline that I know of here is looking for mechanics," said Keith Henthorn, business manager for regional airline Yute Commuter Service.
[From the archives: Apprenticeship programs aim to train Alaska workers amid a tough job market]
None of the airline's mechanics are Bethel residents. Instead, they come from Fairbanks or Anchorage, or even out of state.
"You know," Henthorn said, "I just Tuesday offered a guy from Florida $42 an hour to come up here and be a mechanic for me."
But Henthorn would rather hire locals and keep that money in the region. He could hire five mechanics today.
Local hire would both serve the community and boost the airline's bottom line. Bringing in outside workers is expensive, involving flights, housing and, because of the mechanic shortage, overtime. Fewer mechanics creates less effective airlines. The deficit clogs up the system with grounded planes, delayed flights, backed-up freight and disgruntled passengers.
"Our goal is to have 10 aircraft available every day," Henthorn said. "Typically, we have eight. Now, we still get most of the things flown that we need to get flown. Just makes for a little bit longer business day than is practical in most environments."
The population of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is growing, and Yute Commuter Service wants to grow with it. To do that, they'll need more mechanics, and so will the rest of the region's airlines. Yuut Elitnaurviat's aircraft mechanic program can nearly guarantee jobs for graduates. That's what programs director Jeremy Osborne found when he surveyed regional airlines.
"They said if we could turn out magically maybe 300 airplane mechanics, they would probably be able to be employed all over the Y-K Delta," Osborne said. "I mean, Ravn and Grant are not just in the Y-K Delta. They have Nome, Unalakleet, all the villages up there."
Graduates could work anywhere. Over the next two decades, Boeing predicts North America will need 189,000 more aircraft mechanics. Worldwide, Boeing forecasts the demand will reach 754,000. A national shortage of aircraft mechanics is expected to appear in four years as baby boomers retire, and the U.S. Senate has recognized the problem. This spring, the Senate passed a bill to provide half a million dollars to aircraft mechanic programs like Yuut Elitnaurviat's.
It could be said that when it comes to job opportunity and security in this field, well, the sky's the limit.
"You could go down to Anchorage. You could go down to Texas," Osborne said. "You could go anywhere, and this credential follows you."
The first cohort of mechanics begins February 2019 and runs a year and a half. If you're interested in applying for Yuut Elitnaurviat's aircraft mechanic program in Bethel, call 907-543-0999.