Windsor aviation sector facing distinct growth challenges
By The Windsor Star
Oct. 27, 2014, Windsor, Ont. - Ten years from now, Mayor Eddie Francis and mayoral candidate Drew Dilkens dream of having a thriving aviation industry in Windsor, but mayoral opponents, aviation workers and industry leaders say it’s going to take a whole lot of work to make that a reality.
By The Windsor Star
“I’m not optimistic. I don’t think it’s going to happen. Not with Premier anyway,” said Jay Furtah, a Windsor resident who works in the aerospace industry in Michigan.
Furtah applied to work at Premier Aviation when the company held a job fair, saying it was expecting to hire up to 200 workers by its second year. He never heard back.
“Here you got a highly qualified guy, lives in the city, he’s got an education in aerospace, a background in aerospace and experience, and he didn’t even get an interview,” Furtah said.
Management at Premier said there are about 100 full-time workers and 50 people brought in on contract to cover the skilled labour shortage.
“Right now, the only thing restricting growth is talent,” said Larry Atkinson, general manager of strategy.
But James Passant, an aviation professor at Centennial College, said he sees numerous trained graduates — some from Windsor — visiting Premier and leaving without a job offer.
“It’s a big plan. You just don’t embark on a diversification strategy by just building a building. You need to really identify all of the pieces that need to fit together in order to grow an industry,” said Federica Nazzani, former president and CEO of the Windsor International Airport.
Nazzani, who was a part of the committee that worked to bring Premier Aviation to the city, said getting a training program at St. Clair College will be a crucial piece of the puzzle.
She said there is high demand for structure or avionics technicians, adding that companies like Boeing and Air Canada that do their own maintenance work are offering higher wages to attract workers.
“Essentially they’re competing for this very, very small group of graduates and skilled workers and for that reason, because it’s so competitive, it’s driven price up because the supply is less than the demand,” she said.
Passant said his students have told him Premier Aviation offers lower wages than other similar workplaces, leaving them less willing to move to Windsor for the work.
Dilkens wouldn’t comment on wages at the company, saying it’s not something council would have been privy to when researching bringing the industry to Windsor — a claim opponents and industry leaders say they find hard to believe.
“We knew from the beginning that this investment was risky,” Dilkens said, adding that the decision was made after much research into the best ways to diversify the economy.
He said the unfilled positions are the reason that it will be essential to train workers locally.
The new program at the University of Windsor is a part of that, training students for aviation engineering work, with plans to help develop new approaches to aircraft maintenance, Nazzani said.
But those graduates are unlikely to work at the facility Premier has right now.
At Assumption College Catholic High School, the excitement around the burgeoning aviation industry in Windsor two years ago prompted the creation of a “Specialist High Skills Major” in aviation and aerospace.
The provincial program gives students a red seal on their diploma, with hopes that in future it will lead students into similar studies at university or college.
Dilkens’ dream would see a local training program — ideally at St. Clair College but if not at Premier Aviation itself — that would give workers an incentive to stay in Windsor.
Mayoral candidate Larry Horwitz said the lack of that local program shows the city didn’t have an effective business plan in place before they made a major investment.
“When they pulled that money out of my pocket to start building that facility if they had worked with St. Clair College at that point in time then we would have four years later had graduates being able to fulfil all these jobs,” mayoral candidate John Millson added.
Aviation professor Passant said launching a new college aviation program is costly.
“You’re looking at about $6 to $8 million to spin up that course, because you need to buy your planes, right? It’s not like running a pilot’s course where you can go lease your airplane and then give it back when you’re done. Once a student touches an airplane, it’s never going to fly again,” he said.
There are already two new college aviation technician programs in Ontario, including one at London’s Fanshawe College.
“We count on the Windsor aviation community bringing students coming out of that getting trained here and going back to Windsor,” said Matt Crawford, co-ordinator of the college’s aircraft maintenance program. “I really don’t think the aviation community can support as many schools in Ontario as it has if we continue to grow schools at this rate.”
Nazzani said wherever the students are trained, the city has made an effort to begin to grow the sector by bringing in the FedEx cargo hub and should seek interest from other aircraft maintenance companies and other aspects of the aviation industry.
Millson said he’d focus on trying to bring Porter’s commuter jets to Windsor, making use of the location close to several major urban centres.
Dilkens said his vision would see that cargo hub expanded, bring in business to fill up free airport space and grow Premier Aviation.
“We knew that if we built it we had the commitment that they would come, but we have to remove the barriers and help them be successful,” he said. “I think if they can’t be successful here then they’re certainly going to look at it from a business perspective and say, ‘where can we be successful?’ And we don’t want that.”