March 6, 2009
New academy trains air traffic controllers in advance of a wave of retirements
DENISON, Texas — In an economy where good-paying jobs with security and long career prospects seem few and far between, a new school is offering students a fast track to just that kind of career opportunity.
Link Simulation and Training, an Arlington, Texas-based defense and aerospace contractor, has opened an air traffic controller training academy at the North Texas Regional Airport outside Denison.
Link officials say that in just 10 months of classroom and hands-on training, they can prepare students to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards for entry-level controller jobs at beginning salaries of about $33,000 a year in an occupation where the average annual pay is $122,000.
Facing a wave of retirements, the FAA expects to hire 17,000 controllers over the next decade to keep the nation's air-travel system flowing.
The bulk of the FAA's new hires come from two- and four-year college programs, with only classroom and some simulator instruction.
The FAA then provides more-intensive simulator and control-tower training.
Link officials say they saw an opening for the company, which specializes in putting together military-aviation training programs, to offer a vocational-school approach that would get students trained and into paying jobs much faster.
"I think this program is heads above any other program," said Dale Raatz, director of the Link academy.
"The kids are immersed in it eight hours a day, five days a week. In a college environment, you're not immersed in it."
Raatz is an FAA-certified air traffic controller and trainer recruited by Link from the University of North Dakota to run the program.
Link could not even advertise the school — two years in the planning and costing almost $3 million — before getting FAA approval and certification as a vocational school from the Texas Workforce Commission.
That last step didn't come until mid-December.
Air traffic controllers
Job market: More than 1,800 air traffic controllers were hired in 2007 — roughly two-thirds from college training programs — and the FAA says it will need to hire 17,000 in the next decade.
Pay during training: $17,540
Pay once trained and assigned: $33,700
Average annual salary, excluding overtime: $122,220.
Requirements: You must be a U.S. citizen no older than 31, speak English clearly and pass a background check. You must also have 20/20 vision, with or without correction, normal color vision and no history of heart disease, and you must undergo a psychological examination. Other medical conditions are subject to review.
Link immediately began radio, newspaper and television advertising in the region and had 12 students enrolled by the time the first class began, in the last week of January.
Carl Wilson, Link's advanced-education and training director, who has shepherded establishment of the program, says the company has received more than 100 inquiries from all over the country about the program. It hopes to start a new class every 90 days. Students must pass physical and medical examinations and a security check to qualify for the program.
The bill for 10 months
A major difference between the Link program and academic ones is price: The Link program costs $41,000. At this point, it does not qualify for government-backed student loans.
The Link facility has three classrooms and two high-tech control-tower simulators with 240-degree and 360-degree fields of view, respectively.
The simulators, which Link does not make, use state-of-the art programming and graphics to replicate real-world conditions.
The students also can be taught to recognize and deal with the stress that often drives air traffic controllers out of their jobs or into early retirement.
100 jobs waiting
Students who graduate from the program and pass FAA certification exams will be able to step right into $33,700-a-year control-tower jobs. The FAA has agreed to hire the Link school's first 100 graduates.
Link officials say the timing is right for both the company and students.
Thousands of air traffic controllers hired by the FAA after the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which was broken when President Reagan fired the striking workers, are now approaching retirement age.
Nearly 85 percent of FAA controllers will reach mandatory retirement age over the next 10 years.
"It's a demanding field," Wilson said. "But it can be rewarding."
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