Spirit AeroSystems is looking wide in its plan to fill 1,000 new jobs over the next two years: to high school students, experienced sheet metal workers, retirees and people outside of Kansas.
The aircraft supplier wants to hire 800 more people this year and 200 next year.
“This requires a lot of extra lifting, an extra big challenge,” said Suzanne Scott, director of HR global services for the company that employs 11,000 people in Wichita.
The new jobs were announced in December. Spirit plans to invest $1 billion over five years in its South Oliver factory and lease a new, $14.5 million building on plant property paid for by the city and county. Rising production rates on Boeing 737s and 787s as well as military aircraft are behind the new investment and jobs.
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Spirit’s hiring plan is more complex than just hanging out a help wanted sign.
It involves stepped up recruiting in and out of Wichita and the state, relies heavily on the efforts of area colleges and vocational schools for new workers, and even brings some of the company’s retirees back to work temporarily.
“We’re doing not only more, but we’re doing all of these things,” she said. “All of these things are running concurrent because it’s so challenging to meet our workforce and hiring needs.”
The plan, Scott said, includes holding a few more job fairs than normal and increasing recruitment events in Wichita and beyond for production workers, especially for workers experienced in sheet metal assembly, which the company needs most.
“That requires us stepping outside of the Wichita area,” Scott said. “We do go across Kansas (and) sometimes down the I-35 corridor.”
These recruiting events typically occur in areas where there is a cluster of aerospace companies, in places like Dallas.
“We’ll go on location, try to entice them with relocation and pay out referral bonuses,” Scott said. “There’s some things we try to do to that would … bring them into the state, Wichita and ultimately Spirit.”
The company is expected to increase its recruitment events by about 25 percent this year, a Spirit spokesman said.
But those efforts only get Spirit part of the way to meeting its workforce needs.
That’s why a big part of the plan relies on finding newly trained workers from schools such as Wichita Area Technical College, which is doubling down on its training programs to help Spirit reach its hiring goals.
“They are trying to graduate a potential workforce for us,” Scott said.
WATC spokesman Andy McFayden said the school recently evaluated its curriculum for aviation sheet metal assembly and shortened the program from 10 weeks to eight weeks. “We have ramped up by creating an opportunity for students to enter the program every four weeks,” he said in an e-mail. “This allows for a higher volume and increased frequency of trained sheet metal graduates.”
Starting this semester, a group of Wichita high school seniors are attending sheet metal training offered through WATC, for which they will receive credit. When they graduate from high school later this spring, some who have successfully completed the sheet metal training will receive job offers from Spirit, Scott said.
WATC has also added a second program for students wanting to become a CNC operator, to run computer-numeric controlled machines that cut and shape metal parts. The evening CNC operator program is in addition to one offered during the day.
CNC operators and composite fabrication technicians are two other job categories Spirit needs to fill.
WATC officials said they are confident the school can train all the workers Spirit needs.
“It is our highest priority to meet the workforce need in Kansas, including Spirit AeroSystems,” Sheree Utash, WATC president, said in a statement. “We are expanding and accelerating non-traditional opportunities to create a pipeline to meet that need both today and in the future.”
This summer, Spirit will double the number of high school students who attended its first summer internship program in 2017, Scott said.
“It’s important to us now to start reaching into high schools, trying to help the students maybe get an interest in aviation,” she said.
The latter initiative may not get Spirit to where it needs to be right now in terms of workforce. But it will build Spirit’s pipeline of future production workers, she said.
In the meantime, Spirit has turned to its retirees for help, for temporary assignments on the production floor mentoring newly hired workers.
“They are filling our gaps while we await the trained workforce,” Scott said. “They are proving to be a very viable avenue for us.”
Scott said the retirees are hired as contractors and are allowed to work flexible schedules, from a couple of days a week to a full-fledged, five-day workweek.
Alan Nicholson retired from Spirit 3 1/2 years ago and has temporarily returned to the company on a five-day-a-week schedule. Nicholson was hired to help train recently hired production workers in company-specific requirements such as basic blueprint reading and mechanic verification process.
Nicholson, who was at Spirit and Boeing Wichita before that for 34 years, said he likes the temporary work, which is expected to last through the end of March.
“What’s really nice about this is that we got to meet new people,” he said. “And it’s really nice to see the new hires coming in, going through the training process and seeing … when the light bulb goes on over their head and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, wow. I finally get it.’
“That’s a pretty cool thing.”
Spirit is looking for more retirees like Nicholson.
“We’ve got some jobs posted in the area of supply chain, factory assembly and fabrication,” she said. “We’re looking for those individuals to help us out.”
The company has set up a phone line specifically for retirees who would be interested in temporarily returning to Spirit. The phone number is 316-523-1911.
“We’re going to be utilizing retirees through the year and maybe into next year,” Scott said. “They can help fill the gap right now.”
She said the combination of recruiting, WATC’s increased training, an expanded high school internship program and temporary help from retirees should get Spirit where it needs to be in terms of an expanded workforce.
“Yes,” Scott said. “(But) it takes all these things combined. We feel we’ve got to do all of this.”
How to apply
▪ Experienced production workers can apply online at spiritaero.com/careers.
▪ Retirees from Spirit AeroSystems interested in temporarily returning to the company can call a special phone line at 316-523-1911
▪ People looking to get training for the new production jobs at Spirit can contact the Wichita Area Technical College at 316-677-9400 or e-mail email@example.com.
For information on training
Wichita Area Technical College will have an event on how to enroll in its Aviation Sheetmetal Assembly program at 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 26, at the National Center for Aviation Training, 4004 N. Webb This event is open to the general public but an RSVP is required to attend. RSVP via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.