New-school thinking sparks bizav career fair

 - May 7, 2008, 11:43 AM

An airport-wide aviation career fair that drew some 45 exhibitors and close to 1,500 middle- and high- school students over a two-day period started with an idea from a corporate flight department employee simply to hold an open house in its hangar to familiarize young people with business aviation. Senior members of that flight department–IBM–picked up the ball and, with the assistance of the Westchester Aviation Association (WAA) and many others, organized the inaugural Aviation Career Fair. The event, which is planned to be annual, was held September 27 and 28 at the Vivendi Universal hangar and ramp at Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains, N.Y.

Chaired by IBM director of flight operations Jeff Lee, who is also a member of the NBAA board of directors, the fair was made possible by the combined effort of airport tenants and officials, WAA, the Civil Air Patrol, exhibitors and the more than 190 on-site volunteers who helped students and teachers get the most out of the event. In addition to IBM, key corporate sponsors included Gulfstream Aerospace, Verizon, Vivendi Universal, Kraft Foods, Pepsico, FlightSafety International, Cessna Aircraft, Dassault Falcon Jet and Embraer.

Career paths represented by the exhibitors included the military, piloting, meteorology, ground-service support, FBOs, aircraft and engine maintenance, ATC, catering, aviation security and OEM suppliers. Each exhibitor paid $50 for a booth. In addition, there were corporate, private and military aircraft on static display, several of which were open to students for interior tours. Although the purpose of the fair was to introduce students to all the various career paths possible in aviation, the emphasis was on education, with exhibitors stressing to students that a college degree is a must for anyone seeking a career in aviation.

On September 27 the event was open exclusively to organized student groups from middle, high and technical schools in Westchester and Fairfield (Conn.) counties. On Saturday the event was open to students, parents and the general public. There was no charge to attend, and by the end of the two days officials reported that nearly 1,500 students representing 25 schools had attended the event.

IBM’s Lee described the fair as a three-pronged effort: to motivate and educate young people; to improve the relationship between the airport and local community; and for the event to serve as a model for other airports. It appears that the first two goals were met with flying colors, according to comment forms turned in by students and teachers. It remains to be seen if other airports will follow suit.

Five Months of Planning

Starting in April, Lee worked with WAA president Berl Brechner and others to get the event organized. As flight departments and other airport tenants were contacted to exhibit, volunteer to help or just donate money, letters were sent out to middle, high and technical schools in the area explaining what the fair was all about and inviting them to attend. The May 15 letter emphasized that the event would be “very much a hands-on approach to give young people a more vivid picture as to what is involved with any of these careers and to introduce them to people working in these fields.”

To further encourage schools to attend, fair sponsors developed a worksheet that they recommended be assigned as a learning project by each student. The worksheet, submitted to the school for distribution before the fair, asked each student to identify two different types of aviation jobs; to describe tasks that are performed in these jobs; to relate the importance of math, science and foreign language to these tasks; to list what these people liked and disliked about these jobs; and to give the average salaries of these jobs.

Feedback forms were also handed out to teachers and students to comment on the fair, and it asked for suggestions that would improve the next event. These forms (with the exception of a feedback form for exhibitors) also served as the tickets in a raffle drawing for 10 prizes, including two airline tickets to London (courtesy of Virgin Atlantic Airways), 30 introductory flight lessons (Panorama Flight Service), binoculars (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University), simulator sessions (FlightSafety  International), desktop weather station (Universal Weather & Aviation) and aircraft models (Dassault Falcon Jet and Westair).

Flight departments and others donated goods, services and volunteers who were on site the full two days to act as guides and answer questions. Food was donated by Pepsico, and posters and signs came from IBM. Still, some $25,000 was raised to pay for arranging the fair, from initial publicity and invitations to the purchase or rental of such items as portable restrooms, tents, billboards and electrical hookups.

“We were thrilled to see the kids’ eyes light up when they saw the airplanes and the opportunities spread out across the hangar,” WAA’s Brechner said. “We wanted to give the aviation community an opportunity to share the exciting careers that it offers, and we wanted the kids and the public to better understand what we, and the airport, do for the region.”

The only discouraging sight was at least eight exhibit booths in which there were “no shows.” Other than that, from time to time Brechner had to grab the megaphone and remind students that there was “no smoking in the hangar or on the ramp for safety reasons.” NBAA president Jack Olcott visited the fair Friday morning.

“We’re extremely gratified by the positive results,” Brechner said. Plans are already under way for the second event, to be held during the next school year.