Fractured economic climate has aerospace industry in a 'tailspin'

Published: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 7:00 am By: Heather Caliendo

The Journal Record

A fractured global economic climate is just one of the issues facing the aerospace industry.

"We are struggling to adapt our environment to the evolving industry," said Maj. Gen P. David Gillett, commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base.

"Nonetheless there is no whining allowed and we continue to meet our mission," he said.

The down economy has the industry in a tailspin, and each sector of the aerospace industry is looking for new incentives to regain its flight stamina.

Industry leaders from American Airlines to The Boeing Co. participated in a panel at the Oklahoma Aerospace Summit Tuesday morning at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Tulsa.

"We are not immune to the current economic challenges - but we have adapted," said Steve McLarty, vice president of sales for North America and Latin America for The Nordam Group. "Times are tough but we will all come out bigger and better. I'm a believer that strong companies can remain strong and even get stronger in difficult economic times."

The panel's focus turned to retention and expansion of the industry.

Gillett said to remain competitive the Air Force must turn its work force into a more cohesive team.

"We have to become more efficient," he said. "If we keep doing business the way we are, in the future we will bankrupt our Air Force. So we have to become better at what we do."

Part of the solution is to do maintenance, repair and overhaul services more efficiently and better evaluate what needs to be inspected. Another part is to increase partnerships with different agencies, he said.

Tinker is also collaborating with local colleges to expand the work force pipeline.

Gillett said Tinker is hiring 500 mechanic positions. They are currently at the halfway point.

Far and away the biggest challenge for the company AAR Corp. is finding enough qualified technicians and mechanics, said Don Wetekam, group vice president of MRO for AAR.

This is an issue that has limited the company's growth, he said.

While the work force shortage is an industry issue, Wetekam said it especially hits hard for smaller companies.

"So when I hear 500 employees go to Tinker that is pulling from those other aerospace companies," he said. "The truth is if all we do is move people from one company to another we haven't gained a thing in terms of the industry."

Since the commercial airline industry has taken a major hit, American Airlines had to offer its engineers a lower price point compared to other companies, said Carmine Romano, senior vice president of maintenance and engineering with American Airlines.

"We are having a hard time retaining engineers - there is a shortage," he said. "We are losing engineers to other companies. We have to have that pipeline to pull from to bring people in."

The Boeing Co. has taken various measures in response to the engineering shortage.

"It is one of my passions to inspire female engineers," said Nancy Anderson, defense and government services chief engineer for The Boeing Co. "So I go out there and show them 'if I can do it, you can do it.'"

In an effort to retain employees, the company has many of its entry-level workers rotate to different programs to learn all aspects of the business.

Wetekam said he thinks the aerospace industry has failed to connect with the younger generations.

"For some reason I don't see the excitement and thrill of aerospace that captured me and many of my generation," he said. "We have to start at the grade-school level and excite that imagination that comes with aerospace."

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