Much of the aviation industry faces the growing dilemma of an aging workforce and shortage of qualified replacement personnel. An Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) report predicts that “by the end of 2028, there will be a 10 percent shortage of mechanics.” But one company is tackling this problem with a unique intern program.
Spirit AeroSystems, based in Wichita, Kan., has developed a program designed to introduce high-school students to the factory environment and stimulate their interest in manufacturing. The Wichita, Kan.-based company designs and builds wing, fuselage and other aircraft structures for Boeing and Airbus, as well as for manufacturers of business jets, helicopters and military aircraft. It employs about 15,000 people, but is expanding and needs 1,000 new employees.
To help fill its need, Spirit established in 2017 a program in which high-school students who like to work with their hands spend part of their summer break in the company’s manufacturing facilities. The program comprises two levels. Students 16 to 17 years old learn “what it’s like to be in manufacturing,” explains Ryan Karasek, Intern Program Coordinator and Talent Acquisition Lead at Spirit, while the older students, who have graduated from high school, “actually go on the shop floor and use hand tools and pneumatic tools.” Working with mentors, the over-18 interns are assigned to the assembly line producing Boeing 737 components and to Spirit’s fabrication shops. They learn about machining and sheet-metal work and perform tasks such as de-burring and painting.
The interns work from 7 to 11 a.m. five days a week. The under-18 interns are in Spirit facilities during three weeks in June and paid $9 per hour, while those over 18 years old work six weeks during the months of June and July and are paid $10 per hour. Applications for the program are accepted in April.
After just one year in existence, the program has already bore fruit; four interns are now full-time employees. The company is expanding the program dramatically. This year, the number of participants doubled in Spirit’s Wichita facility, from 20 to 40, and in its Tulsa, Okla., facility, from five to 10. In addition, the component manufacturer is forming a pilot program in its Kinston, N.C., plant to include five interns.
Spirit AeroSystems also repairs the components it builds. So far, interns haven’t been exposed to that activity; however, Karasek says the program is flexible and can adapt to the company’s various employment demands.
The manufacturer currently needs more factory workers primarily because Boeing is stepping up its 737 production. (In March Spirit delivered its 10,000th 737 shipset.) Last year, Boeing produced 47 737s monthly, according to Karasek. “In March this year, that number went up to 52, and next March they plan to produce 57 737s per month,” he adds. Additional workforce also may be needed because Spirit is growing its fabrication business. “We previously fabricated parts only for ourselves,” says Karasek. “Now we take in orders from third parties.” — By David Jensen