Aerospace Alliance, 189th Wing collaborating to recruit skilled personnel

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 582 views 

Officials stand in front of a Dassault Falcon 8x Jet.

Mark Bremer’s path to becoming vice president of industrial programs for Dassault Falcon Jet started 38 years ago at the Little Rock Air Force Base. On Feb. 2, he was back hoping to find skilled employees among Air Guard and Air Force personnel.

Bremer was at the Air Force base for the Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance Industry Day. Twenty Alliance companies set up booths in a hangar next to a C-130 troop transport as guests of the Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing.

The companies and the wing both had the same goals: connecting and recruiting.

Members of the wing’s full-time and part-time personnel visited the booths. Members of the Arkansas Army National Guard and full-time Air Force personnel also were scheduled to visit it.

Bremer is an executive with one of Arkansas’ biggest employers, albeit one with a lower profile than some others. The French-owned Dassault Falcon Jet (pronounced DA-so) operates a completion facility in Little Rock for its line of luxury private jets. It recently announced a $100 million expansion that will add 800 jobs. Bremer said the company has 300 open jobs now.

But finding skilled workers to fill those positions is challenging. While several colleges offer airframe and powerplant certifications, there are no avionics training programs in Arkansas, Bremer said.

“We can do training classes, which we’re doing for upholstery and cabinet makers and that type of thing, but the skills of trained avionics people, trained aircraft mechanics, we get most of those from the military,” he said.

Bremer is president of the Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance, which includes 60 companies. Finding qualified workers is a challenge for all of them, but the military is an ideal place to look.

“They’re optimal,” he said. “The people coming out of the military are some of the best people you can get. They’re dedicated. They’re trustworthy. They’re smart. They’ve had great training while they’ve been here, and they can come and be a viable employee and contribute immediately.”

Bremer got his start in aerospace when he came to Arkansas in 1986 as an airman at the Little Rock Air Force Base, a training base for the Air Force’s huge C-130 troop transports. He didn’t believe anything was available for him here as he prepared to leave the service, so he figured he would go home to northern Illinois. That’s when a neighbor told him he was working with an aircraft completion facility locally.

Bremer ended up getting a job because of that chance discussion. The Industry Day is a more targeted effort at attracting skilled workers. Along with the larger companies participating in the Industry Day event was one with six employees – Little Rock-based Arcturus Aerospace, a manufacturer of small aluminum and stainless steel components used in flight controls and other functions.

“Our customers are all out of state, and they’re all large aerospace companies everybody’s heard of that are on the New York Stock Exchange,” said CEO Mark Greenwell. “For the most part, Boeing’s what starts everything rolling downhill.”

Greenwell, whose mother lives here, brought the company to Little Rock from Southern California in 2020. The company was four times larger than it is now, but he wanted a location where all his employees could afford a home. In Arkansas, all indeed are homeowners.

The past few years have been challenging. Two crashes led to the groundings of Boeing 737 MAX planes in 2019 and 2020. The COVID pandemic severely restricted flights of all kinds. Then more Boeing planes recently were grounded temporarily after a door blew off an Alaska Airlines flight.

Still, Greenwell, a Navy veteran, is bullish on his company’s future. Arcturus Aerospace operates out of a 16,000-square-foot facility, so it has room to grow. Standing in line for a barbecue lunch prior to the airmen’s arrival Feb. 2, he said if he could find a good CNC (computer numerical control) machinist, he would hire them.

While the Industry Day would benefit local employers, it also was created for the military personnel and their units. Industry representatives were given a briefing and a tour by officers with the 189th Airlift Wing. That’s an Air National Guard unit with about 1,000 members that trains all C-130H air crew members – pilots, navigators, flight engineers and loadmasters, both guardsmen and foreign nationals.

The C-130H – the Hercules – is a Guard and Reserve version of the plane. Active duty Air Force pilots fly the more advanced C-130J. The 189th is scheduled to receive its first two C-130Js in October, and then afterwards it will begin training personnel on that plane.

While the 189th is an Air Guard unit, it has a large number of full-time employees. Those include Col. Sarah O’Banion, who commands the unit’s maintenance group but will soon become the 189th’s deputy commander. The maintenance group is composed of about 250 personnel, about a third of them full-time.

O’Banion said the 189th is actively trying to connect guardsmen with similar civilian jobs. The airmen can apply the skills they learn in the civilian world to their military duties.

The Industry Day also had an education and recruiting component. Col. Patric Coggin, the 189th’s commander, told attendees the wing is struggling to fill all its positions and has dedicated extra resources to recruiting. It’s using industry partnerships and social media to try to attract talent. One challenge is a lack of connectivity and familiarity with the military. He asked that attendees share with others the opportunities available in the military and their experiences with it.

“We’ve come to the realization that we can’t just say that’s a recruiter’s problem,” he said. “There aren’t enough recruiters to say recruiting’s a recruiter’s problem. It’s a problem for all of us.”

One advantage is the state’s generally positive attitude toward the military. Coggin recalled being stationed with the 188th Wing at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith and talking with a commander in Syracuse who had protestors at his gate.

“And I’m like, I don’t have that problem in Fort Smith, Arkansas,” he said. “Matter of fact, should a protestor show up at the front gate, I’d be concerned for the health and safety of the protestor because that’s the difference that we have in Arkansas.”