In one room at Wichita’s National Center for Aviation Training, a half-dozen students reassemble an engine for a small airplane parked in a hangar next door.
In other classrooms and workshops, students learn to weld, work with robots, manage industrial electromechanical systems and other skills.
"A lot of times, people think of the NCAT as working on airplanes," said Joe Ontjes, executive director of recruiting and marketing director for the center. "It’s more than that."
Sixteen months after opening, the sleek, $70 million NCAT campus on North Webb Road still has a brand-new feel to it. And while the center remains focused on aviation, the variety of skills taught — and their applicability to a number of careers — helps keep the campus busy during an unsettled period in its namesake industry.
"Aviation is not the only local industry that benefits from the skilled workforce coming out of NCAT," Ontjes said.
NCAT is part of the Wichita Area Technical College, the state’s largest. Built by Sedgwick County, the campus serves as the administrative headquarters of the technical college as well as the home of its aviation and advanced manufacturing programs.
The college also has facilities on Grove next to East High and at the Southside Education Center on 47th Street South for programs in business and technology, design, health sciences and other fields.
Last fall, there were 3,429 people enrolled in WATC, up about 7 percent over the previous year. WATC offers associate’s degrees, technical certificates and three-month certificates of completion. The cost of attending is comparable to a community college, and many course credits are transferrable to the state’s other public colleges.
The average student is 26 years old with some work experience, although in actual age they range from senior citizens to high school students trying to get a jump on college credit or careers. The center offers early-morning, night and weekend classes to accommodate a variety of schedules.
NCAT has two partnerships that make it uniquely effective, Ontjes said. One is with the local aviation industry, which helps shape its curriculum. The other is with the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, which conducts research there.
An example of the former is the electromechanical systems program that started classes in January. Spirt AeroSystems asked the center to train a half-dozen of its employees to run electromechanical systems on its plant floors. The employee-students attend school from 8 a.m. to noon and work from 1 to 6 p.m.
"This is the apprentice schooling they want us to have," said Michael Burgess, 28, of Haysville. "I think it will give me a career that’s in high demand."
About 30 percent of the area’s aviation workers will become eligible for retirement before the decade is out.
"We didn’t see the skills out there in the pipeline," Spirit executive Gary Rudkin said of the company’s reason for becoming involved in the program. "The equipment is very sophisticated and it takes skills to maintain it."
Sheree Utash, vice president of academic affairs for WATC, called the program "a unique partnership with Spirit who has been instrumental in the development of the program, the design of the curriculum, equipment selection and the launch of classes."
Four non-Spirit employees are also enrolled in the program, which is applicable to other manufacturing operations.
Another example is the center’s robotics program, which is scheduled to start classes this fall. It will be taught by E.K. Boldsaikan, who’s a research engineer with the NIAR in addition to being on the WATC faculty.
Students will learn how to program and maintain robots for use in the aviation, automotive and other industries.
"In the next decade, there will be major implementation of robotics," Boldsaikan said. "The curriculum is driven by industry."
Other programs at the center teach students how to manufacture, maintain, paint and test aircraft and their components. Ontjes said WATC was recently chosen to develop an aviation certificate program for the National Association of Manufacturers, signaling its leadership in the field.
"We think it’s not only unique, but also the best of its kind in the nation," he said.
Overall, WATC says it has a 94 percent job placement for its graduates. Two of the manufacturing programs – welding and machining – had 100 percent placement for the most recent class. Enrollment for the spring semester now under way is also up compared to last year.
Wesson talks about the different jobs his students have found, from cruise ships to the wind energy business to auto racing.
"NASCAR loves these guys because they understand aerodynamics," he said.
But Wesson has no doubt that most will find work in aviation, whatever hiccups that industry is now experiencing.
"It’s coming back," he said.