Walking the halls of the National Center for Aviation Training is like stepping into a scene from Star Wars.
In one room, rows of brightly colored robotic arms hang within their glass cases. In another, computer consoles with dozens of colored buttons sit side by side on desks.
Wichita Area Technical College, which manages and runs classes at NCAT, is 50 years old this year. But it shows no signs of aging.
“We’re trying to be nimble,” said Joe Ontjes, vice president for marketing and advancement at WATC.
Proof of that is everywhere, from the NCAT building itself — which opened in 2010 at 4004 N. Webb — to its furnishings and equipment, which are all state of the art, Ontjes said.
Some of WATC’s recent programs have been forward thinking as well.
In February, WATC teamed with Wichita State University to begin offering general education courses through WATC so students can transfer credits to WSU and finish their Associate of Arts degree at the four-year university.
Another program, set to start in the fall, will provide students with tablets where they can access open-source textbooks for free. The bookstore will be used for technology help and training instead of buying books.
It’s a move Ontjes thinks most colleges will be making.
“We’re trying to modernize and really be cutting edge as we move forward to make sure we’re meeting students where they’re at,” he said.
Ontjes said building basic technology into the classrooms ensures that employers are getting qualified students.
“If you think about it, a lot of our students are 18, 19, 20, probably already comfortable with technology,” he said. “But a lot of them are not. They’re older, they’re coming back to school … They may not have had that exposure to technology.”
In its half-century of existence, WATC has gone through many changes — most of which have occurred in the past decade. The school didn’t even become an accredited college until 2006, two years after it transitioned out of the Wichita school district and became an independent college.
Since then, the college has taken steps to becoming the leading school in aviation training, starting with the 2010 founding of NCAT. In 2012, the National Aviation Consortium, which was co-founded with WATC, has led the way to standardize aviation curriculum in five states, Ontjes said.
With the recent moves, Ontjes said WATC is set up to have a successful next 50 years. Placement rates are excellent, he said, with 85 percent of students getting jobs in their fields upon graduation.
Programs such as industrial automation and riveting, which Ontjes said is one of his favorites because of the lives it can change, have even higher placement rates. Ontjes said a student could walk in and, in eight weeks, walk out with a riveting job paying $16 an hour with full benefits.
“If you even go into this program, Spirit and Cessna will guarantee you a job interview just for setting foot in this room,” Ontjes said. “Basically, if you pass a drug test, you’re going to get hired.”
Although it has a strong aviation curriculum, WATC offers degree programs in a variety of other fields. Its healthcare program includes degree programs for dental assistants and registered nurses, and its manufacturing program includes auto collision repair and carpentry. The school also offers courses in business, police science and design.
Ontjes said that if a WATC program starts falling behind in job-placement for students, school officials will investigate it with employers. If the jobs just aren’t there, it will end the program.
With that philosophy, the next 50 years could be very different for WATC. Ontjes said he predicts more robots, which he said simply means a different skill required by workers.
“It’s not that it’s going to take your job,” he said. “It’s just going to change what you do.”
WATC through the years
1965: Founded as Wichita Area Vocational-Technical School
1999: Name changed to Wichita Area Technical College; authorization to grant college credit and award Associate of Applied Science degrees
2004: WATC transitions out of USD 259 and into new status as an independent college with its own governing board
2006: WATC receives accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission-North Central Association
2010: National Center for Aviation Training (NCAT) campus opens at Jabara Airport
2012: WATC begins offering free tuition for high school students taking dual-credit technical education classes
2012: WATC, co-founder of the National Aviation Consortium, receives a $15 million federal grant and takes the lead to standardize aviation training curriculum in five states
2015: WATC and WSU announce a first-of-its-kind partnership, Shocker Pathway, that will assist students who want to begin their coursework at WATC and finish their associate’s degree, or beyond, at WSU.