The biggest campus of the largest aviation maintenance school in the United States is moving into the McKinley Park neighborhood, preparing for several hundred students per graduating class studying daily at the converted Logistics Property Co. warehouse at 3711 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.
Starting this fall, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM) will begin classes for its Aviation Maintenance Technician program, along with opportunities to learn adjunct skills like welding, avionics and, eventually, certified drone piloting and maintenance, said AIM Executive Vice President Dr. Joel English.
“It will be the nation’s largest A&P [airframe and power plant] school at 137,000 square feet,” English said. “We anticipate having a large and successful campus enrolling for classes starting in September.”
A Perfect Fit
The new warehouse on South Ashland Avenue fit AIM’s requirements for tens of thousands of feet of space for a large, open aircraft hangar, classrooms, fabrication shops, laboratories, libraries, administrative offices and student spaces, English said. The school is spending $5 million on its build-out of the formerly empty, unfinished space, its 14th aviation maintenance campus and the only school in the greater Chicago area offering a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified aviation maintenance program.
“Because this building was 100 percent open to begin with, we had nothing to tear down,” English said. “This building was perfect for us.”
New Collar Opportunities
“The McKinley Park neighborhood was perfect because it is both rich with the tradition of the working class family, but also ripe with new growth for young people,” English said. “Our students represent a mix of exactly these components.”
English noted both the work ethic of tradespeople and also the younger, 20- to 30-year-old students who fill many of the “new collar” careers available in aviation. These careers can be long and fruitful, he said, and they offer flexibility because new aviation mechanics can mix and match paid professional work alongside optional educational advancement to lay the groundwork for future roles in airline management and business.
The industry needs new mechanics: English cited a Boeing Company study stating a need for 192,000 certified aircraft technicians in North America over the next 20 years and more than 769,000 worldwide. The median annual salary for an aviation mechanic in Chicago is over $72,000, and more than 70 percent of last year’s AIM graduates are working in aviation roles today, “even during the pandemic,” English said.
Mark Holloway, the school’s director of education who has designed and manages its nationwide curriculum, said that working in the aviation industry creates a special mindset. Once engaged, student aviation mechanics can see the potential “that their lives are going to be better,” Holloway said.
“It’s a great career,” English said.
School Credits Transfer
Key to AIM’s rollout in Chicago will be its partnerships with some of the city’s existing educational institutions, English said.
“We have been developing a relationship with the City Colleges of Chicago, where students within the City College’s degree program in aviation maintenance will actually complete their technical education at AIM,” he said.
A new secondary school program will allow students to take four general aviation courses while still in high school, English said. Students can then transfer this to class credit at AIM and then continue to complete their FAA mechanic certification.
In addition, students’ experience at AIM can transfer toward credit at Southern Illinois University to pursue a bachelor’s degree, English said. At any point, a student can “off-ramp” from education to work full time on what they’ve learned, English said, and then optionally return to pursue more education.
Engish highlighted AIM’s FAA-certified Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) piloting course for students to become a commercial drone pilot.
“AIM will become the resource in Chicago for certified drone operators, both immediately and as the FAA’s certifications become refined over time,” he said, noting that many industries are looking to drone-based delivery as a “core competency,” including Amazon, which is opening a distribution hub near AIM at West 35th Street and South Ashland Avenue.
Staffing for the new AIM campus calls for dozens of local professionals to work at the school: about 40 positions filled by the end of 2021 and 75 jobs filled by the end of 2022, English said. Although the campus will have the capacity to educate up to 1,200 students at once, AIM expects about 500 concurrent students by the end of the first two years, English said.
“We will scale only at the pace at which the aerospace workforce needs our graduates,” he said.
English said that AIM is in the McKinley Park neighborhood for the long haul: “We have signed a lease at the property that will have us at the location for the next 20 years,” he said.
Airliner landing gear at AIM’s new Chicago campus awaits aviation mechanics students coming to study starting in fall 2021.