As jittery as Wichita is about the future of its aircraft manufacturing sector, it needn’t worry about one thing — where tomorrow’s aviation work force will get the highly technical training that area employers will require.
That’s because more than half a decade ago, Sedgwick County officials and an array of other leaders in the public and private sectors not only recognized the need for a world-class aviation training facility but also found the courage and drive to act on it. The city of Wichita stepped up with suitable land. Members of the legislative and congressional delegations helped with funding. An alphabet soup of groups related to vocational training did the planning.
Now, thanks to such leadership, the National Center for Aviation Training isn’t still on some wish list or drawing board.
It’s on North Webb Road, where the $52 million, 230,000-square-foot complex will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3 p.m. today, and where students already are learning how to build and maintain aircraft. NCAT now can partner with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research in demonstrating Wichita’s role not only in aviation’s past but in its future.
The county’s decision to step out and lead the effort to build a technical training facility had a price. Three county commissioners arguably lost their seats over it, because they voted in 2006 to partially fund the center’s construction (and a since-canceled jail expansion) by raising the property-tax mill levy.
There were difficult decisions to make involving the Wichita Area Technical College. As the downturn forced thousands of aviation layoffs beginning in 2008, critics pointed to the training center as ill-timed, shortsighted corporate welfare.
And as a frontpage article in the Sunday Eagle illuminated, safeguarding Wichita’s share of the aviation industry won’t be as simple as opening NCAT’s doors — not with other states and countries willing to shower Wichita’s companies with $400 million in incentives, as Louisiana reportedly has done in the case of Hawker Beechcraft.
But NCAT greatly helps the cause, underscoring to employers how determined the community and state are that Wichita will remain the Air Capital of the World. Nobody can say that Wichita has neglected to plan for and invest in its aviation work force, and in a way that uniquely responds to employers’ needs.
As Mary Lynn Oliver, daughter of Beechcraft founders Walter and Olive Ann Beech, said in the Sunday Eagle, in discussing how “horrified and heartbroken” her late parents would be at the prospect of a Wichita without Beechcraft: “I don’t know how you could get the work force elsewhere that’s so well-trained and have the work ethic.”
The National Center for Aviation Training now stands as both a precious resource for employers and as a powerful reason for them to stay in Wichita.
— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman