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Wichita State, Beechcraft team up to ‘insource’ aerospace jobs

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 17, 2014, at 7:16 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 8:51 p.m.

Tired of hearing about jobs getting outsourced from Wichita?

So are Shawn Ehrstein from Wichita State University and Scott Yeakley from Beechcraft.

In the past year Ehrstein and Yeakley, aviation engineers, helped bring back to Wichita the equivalent of more than 50 aerospace jobs formerly outsourced, WSU officials said.

Leaders at WSU now say the partnership idea is so intriguing that they will try to replicate it: bringing back more jobs and redefining public-private partnerships in the future.

The idea they devised was unusual:

Take a bunch of WSU engineering undergraduates, mostly young people. Train them intensely. Then integrate them as full team members on real projects at Beechcraft.

This kind of thing isn’t done often, Ehrstein said. Engineering is hard to learn and hard to do, so most companies would be reluctant to try this. Beechcraft has made it work, he said.

What Beechcraft got out of this were good employees at a reasonable cost, he said. What those undergrads got, two students say, was real-world job training.

About 80 WSU engineering students have done the work so far, producing about 1,400 person hours a week for Beechcraft for the past three years. By the end of this year, WSU students will have done 82,000 hours of engineering work for Beechcraft, Ehrstein said.

Some students in the program already have jobs – 11 at Beechcraft so far.

“Some of them we hired even before they graduated,” Yeakley said.

One student, a junior in mechanical engineering from Andover named Landon Huslig, said he and dozens of other undergraduates got to work side by side for months with Beechcraft engineers.

“They didn’t treat us like kids,” he said. “They treated us like co-workers.

“Any help or advice we needed, they gave it to us.”

It all worked so well that Ehrstein and the National Institute for Aviation Research, for which he works, have made partnership proposals to other Wichita companies. Ehrstein hopes to convince other companies that it is good business to bring more jobs home, where people can work face to face.

Much of the work done by these students would have been outsourced if not for the partnership, Yeakley said.

Ehrstein, who has lived in Kansas since second grade, is tired of seeing jobs get outsourced. So is Yeakley, a farm kid and a native of Hoisington.

Ehrstein has a name for what he and Yeakley created:

“Insourcing.”

Real-world work

Yeakley is director of engineering operations for Beechcraft Corp., which recently became part of Textron Aviation. Yeakley is a good idea guy, Ehrstein said.

Yeakley several years ago needed a few extra hands for some technical work, much of it involving the digital upgrading of records, or the electronic upgrading of 3-D aviation designs. He needed people familiar with engineering to upgrade older airplane designs so they would be modern, digital and three dimensional. Some old written business processes that go with those designs needed to be upgraded and digitized, too.

“But the market was tight, and we were having a tough time finding degreed individuals who could help us,” Yeakley said. “So we thought we should grow our own labor base.”

His first idea didn’t work well, Yeakley said: He devised a summer intern program.

It failed to work because engineering takes time to learn correctly. By the time summer was over, not much had been accomplished.

So he went to Ehrstein to find another way. The two of them worked to build something more innovative and more substantial.

Eherstein directs the computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing lab for NIAR. The labs are located at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita. The professional engineers working in Ehrstein’s labs do a lot of training, but they also help problem-solve larger issues for local plane manufacturers.

What he agreed to do for Yeakley, Eherstein said, was to hire a small group of undergraduate engineering students from WSU – only this time, train them intensely, not only in 3-D work but “in the Beechcraft way of doing things.” The idea was that when they showed up at Beechcraft, Ehrstein’s instructors would have made them much more prepared than green summer interns.

Ehrstein also committed to Yeakley that NIAR would “test drive” these students, as Yeakley put it, to ascertain whether they really wanted to do this work and whether it suited them. After the training, the students would commit to a full semester of work, 20 to 25 hours a week. No dropping out or drifting away.

What Yeakley agreed to, Ehrstein said, was that they would give the students real-world work, on actual 3-D plane designs, side by side with highly skilled Beechcraft engineers. And they would pay them and guarantee them the same commitment of time: a full semester of paid work. Students needing a steady paycheck got it.

A win-win

Over the course of the program, students have worked on projects involving jets, piston-driven aircraft and the military.

“We get to put on our resumes that we worked for an aviation company that anybody would recognize, and that’s a real good thing,” said Huslig, the WSU student from Andover.

“I got a lot of experience in industry working with actual engineers that I may or may not have gotten to do had I not worked at Beechcraft,” said Jake Steward, a WSU senior.

What Wichita got out of it, Ehrstein said, were jobs that stayed in Wichita.

If Yeakley had not started them thinking on this partnership, Ehrstein said, the work that Beechcraft needed would have gone somewhere else, either outside Wichita or outside the country. So this was a win-win for everybody, Ehrstein said.

Growing jobs

Ehrstein and his laboratories work for John Tomblin as part of NIAR. When Tomblin ran the numbers recently, showing what Yeakley and Ehrstein created, he saw all sorts of potential, and not just for NIAR.

Tomblin has a second job that has kept him considerably preoccupied for more than a year – how to grow more well-paid technical jobs for Wichita and the surrounding region. Besides running NIAR, he is WSU’s interim vice president for research and technology transfer.

WSU is a university that has tried to redefine a lot of things lately – how to create more money for the university and more practical training for WSU students. Above all, Tomblin and WSU President John Bardo have tried to make WSU a useful new attraction for local industries and businesses.

They hope to persuade local and outside industries to move some operations onto the grounds at WSU, where Bardo hopes to build a four-building “innovation campus” dedicated in large part to creating a kind of technology and science hub to grow more businesses and help more industry in Wichita. They hope to attract tenants, which is why Ehrstein has been talking not only to Beechcraft but to other aerospace companies about joining forces with NIAR.

What WSU would get from this, Tomblin said, would be productive new partners working with students. What the companies would get would be a chance to pair up their ideas and expertise with WSU’s 3-D printer technology and scientists.

Wichita’s leaders have worried for years, Tomblin said, about the aviation manufacturers outsourcing work, as most of them have done, and about whether the industries will leave Wichita, which Boeing is doing.

Local economies, or universities, make a mistake when all they do is try to retain what they have, Tomblin said.

“That’s playing defense,” he said. “You need to play offense, too.”

He saw the Beechcraft partnership as a great move to play offense as soon as he heard about it, he said. He decided WSU should play a little offense of its own.

So he and Ehrstein will make the case to the aviation companies that they should bring jobs back to Wichita, while WSU commits to using “this program to grow the kind of graduate that you want working in your shop.”

Companies will benefit if they follow the Beechcraft model, Tomblin said. If WSU can provide them with highly trained students, the companies will benefit by having work done here in Wichita, where their people can work side by side and solve problems together.

“You can’t do that as easily where work has been outsourced to India or Mexico,” he said.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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