Beginning this year, Duncan Aviation will launch a formalized apprenticeship program that will offer paying jobs to apprentices while preparing them over a year and a half for an FAA license as airframe technicians. The new program is an outgrowth of an effort the Lincoln, Nebraska-based MRO provider began several years ago to offer on-the-job training and instruction to new hires and existing workers interested in becoming A&Ps. “The apprentice program has been very important to us,” Duncan president and CEO Aaron Hilkemann told AIN.
Three apprentices—or “tech helpers” as Duncan calls them—tested for their airframe certifications in December while five more were expected to test in January, Duncan manager of aircraft services Jeremy Rangel told AIN. That’s in addition to another three who have successfully passed the FAA examination. “This next year  will be our first full run with the [U.S.] Department of Labor [DOL] standards,” added Rangel, who also oversees Duncan’s apprenticeship program.
In November, Duncan’s re-tooled apprenticeship program was formally registered by the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education (DOE). Previously, Duncan’s apprenticeship program was 18 months long as required by the FAA for licensure testing. “We’ve actually progressed quite a few people through that process, but we started thinking about how we are going to get these guys extremely well prepared for the test,” Rangel explained, “because the test is substantial and actually changed over the years and has become more and more difficult.”
That’s when Duncan contacted the DOE and DOL to formally develop its apprenticeship program, which has been extended to 24 months. “[DOL] gave us their guidelines and we worked with what they had and re-tooled it to match with what works for Duncan Aviation in developing A&Ps into the program we have now,” Rangel added. “Through this course and on-the-job training, [tech helpers] get every gap that was missing and what we needed to get them ready for testing.”
The now-extended program includes a 90-day period to familiarize tech helpers with working around aircraft and the teams they are assigned to as well as learning the culture at Duncan. After those 90 days, the tech helpers transition into the apprenticeship program.
Duncan will have two hiring rotations annually for the program and expects each of those classes to have between 20 and 25 students. Under it, they work 30 to 36 hours a week and attend classroom training for four to 10 hours a week. Military veterans who served as aircraft mechanics and attend the program under an accelerated basis are eligible to use the G.I. bill to supplement their income as tech helpers. “They can utilize that to offset starting wages that are normally not super high, so it helps them make that transition,” Rangel said.
Eventually, Duncan expects to expand the apprentice program to its other full-service MRO locations in Battle Creek, Michigan and, later, Provo, Utah, which it opened last year. “We’re working to formalize the process over in Battle Creek,” Rangel said. “Provo’s probably a little ways off as they’re building themselves up and we don’t want to impact them with too much more change.”
It also is looking at adding a powerplant apprenticeship program for those airframe technicians who want to add that credential, he added.
A Conduit to a Future Workforce
Even with the time, energy and investment into the apprenticeship program, Rangel said the bulk of its airframe and powerplant technician hires are still those who are already certified.
“We by no means want to slow that path, because the knowledge base right there supports their growth quicker through the company and supports us better right off the bat,” Rangel said of experienced A&Ps. “I would say probably 20 percent of our incomings come through the [apprenticeship] program.”
While current trends suggest that an aging A&P workforce and too few programs and students exist to offset retirements and future industry needs, it’s not a significant concern for Duncan at the moment. Hilkemann said Duncan’s average team member has 13 years at the company and is around 39 years old. “There are some companies I know in the industry that have a much higher average age and it’s going to be much more difficult [for them],” he said.
Still, Duncan’s program has attracted future generations of A&Ps because some of its apprentices have come directly from high school or college. And Hilkemann thinks it will continue to be an effective conduit for Duncan’s future workforce needs.
“They're getting paid for working and they get paid for… school,” he explained. “So it’s just been a very positive program and we’ve watched those people stay in the company. They’re obviously very loyal. They’re presented their degree, you could say, working for us and it’s been a positive all around.”