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No Limit in the Skies

by Yvonne Butts-Mitchell + photos by Chris Jackson


Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics bridges the gap between opportunity and the skill shortage.

What do submarine crews, big brewing companies, amusement parks and airlines have in common? They all hire graduates of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA), an institution that now has a presence in Hagerstown. The local campus is in its third year of operations and can boast a job placement rate of 78 percent within just 43 days of graduation. That’s an impressive statement in a field where starting salaries average about $36,000 a year and often jump to $70,000 or $80,000 after a few years of experience.

The Hagerstown PIA facility is the only aviation mechanics school in Maryland and operates as a satellite school to the main campus in Pittsburgh. Every four months, a new class of students takes off on their journey to earn an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certification that will lead to licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“PIA has a very strong reputation in the aviation industry for the quality of technicians we produce,” says Steven Sabold, director of admissions. “What is also recognized is that their skill set is extremely transferable. The training our students get in hydraulics and pneumatics is just one example of what makes our grads extremely attractive to many other industries.”

Earning that A&P certification from PIA means a student has completed 16 months of training with 100 percent attendance and students are required to clock 1900 hours of training to graduate. “If you miss a day, you make up a day, miss a minute, make up a minute,” reports Roxanne Ober, PIA admissions and outreach coordinator. “That demonstrated work ethic alone has a very high appeal to potential employers,” Steven adds.

In addition to course work in things as academic as Boolean algebra, students spend a large portion of class time with hands-on work including welding and metal fabrication. At one point, they even build their own airplane wing using silk and fabric. Problem solving and trouble-shooting intuition grows along with their electrical and engineering skills, all of which are transferable and attractive assets in other applications from wind turbines to roller coasters to micro chip industries.

“The people who are drawn to us like to work with their hands; they are inquisitive and want to know how things work,” Steven says. “They might like to tinker with cars or may have been in a vo-tech program in high school. It’s the man or woman who isn’t afraid to dive in and take apart the DVD player when it stops working,” he quips.

“When you graduate from PIA, you leave with a sense of pride knowing that you are well-qualified in a technical field. Employers respond to your credentials,” says Bryson Cordelli, a graduate from the first Hagerstown class. “One of the biggest things I took away from my experience at PIA was increased confidence,” he reflects. “When my brother’s refrigerator wasn’t working, I just pulled out the motherboard and starting running wires and I got it fixed! And as a job perk, I now fly for free!”

Cordelli entered PIA at the age of 23, leaving behind his first career in sales and customer service. He is now the youngest tech on the job for Republic Airlines at Reagan National Airport in D.C. where he works on aircrafts for Delta, U.S. Air, United and Frontier. “I’ve seen nothing on the job that I wasn’t prepared for through my training,” he states.

He is just one of the people bridging the gap between job opportunities and available job skills in the area — an economic opportunity that Gov. Martin O’Malley acknowledged at the PIA ribbon cutting in April, 2011. “We don’t have a job shortage; we have a skills shortage,” O’Malley declared. PIA is helping to change that.

The training attracts a diverse group, with the latest graduating class of 36 people ranging in age from 18-51, including nine military veterans — some of who had years of experience with Blackhawk helicopters. Also set to graduate is Hagerstown’s first female student. Her high school experience with drawing and blueprint reading led her to this training and she has already secured a post-graduation scholarship for additional training with the National Business Aviation Association.

“The most joyous part of my job is knowing graduates from PIA have a great opportunity for employment,” states Steven. “If someone wants to work with their hands and gets this training, they should have no problem finding employment. Our mission is to keep focused on the career outlook for our graduates.”

“Our one-on-one placement leads to success,” says Roxanne. That personal attention is also backed up by campus visits from recruiters and visits to the main campus for students. “Whether I graduated last year, five years ago or 25 years ago, PIA is still there to help me find a job,” Bryson affirms.

Nearly 85 years ago, Orville Wright and business partner Glenn Curtiss launched the business that led to the opening of PIA. It’s unlikely the duo could have imagined then the places that innovation would take the 35,000 PIA students who have since graduated. For those graduates, the sky was not the limit; it was only the beginning.