Friday, January 22, 2016

Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College suspends composites program

Justin Balsness of Duluth cleans a piece of machinery that he is fixing in the composite class at WITC in Superior on Thursday morning. 

A course launched with Kestrel employees in mind is being shuttered by Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College of Superior.

School officials said low enrollment and lack of local employment opportunities led to suspension of the program.

"If we have no students coming in and no large employer on the back end, it creates a stranglehold," said WITC-Superior Administrator Bonny Copenhaver.

Instructor Dave Crockett said the program, the only one of its kind in the state, fills a growing industry need and attracts students from a wide radius. He called the suspension a "slap in Superior’s face."

WITC-Superior’s composite technology program was created with the help of $600,000 in state grant money. It opened its doors to 10 students in May of 2013. A year later, the program was restructured to offer a 1½-year technical degree program instead of just a two-year associate degree. The coursework was also retooled to move from a heavy emphasis on aviation to a well-rounded training that would prepare workers for jobs in other areas, including marine and wind turbine work. No enrollments were taken in the fall of 2014 to allow time to modify the curriculum, according to WITC President John Will. That move cost the campus $50,000 in grant funding, Copenhaver said.

The program currently has seven students, with a maximum capacity for 16 without adding an instructor. No more students will be accepted to the program and it will be shuttered when the last students graduate in 2017.

Ten of the program’s graduates are already placed and working, Crockett said, and most got job offers before they finished the course. Cirrus Aircraft has employed three of them.

"We could potentially hire up to five of these individuals a year," said Vance Okstad, director of organization development for Cirrus. "It’s a strong need for us." The aircraft manufacturer was in talks with the college to provide additional composites training for current employees. WITC offers a well-rounded course, Okstad said, and its graduates were able to walk directly onto the job. Their three WITC graduates are still doing work directly related to what they learned.

"I would love to see it continue on," said Okstad, who serves on the advisory board for the program. He said composite technology is a skill that will be needed in the future, but the course may be ahead of its time. A degree is not required currently for composites work, he said, and Cirrus does much of its composite training in-house.

"I’m sorry to see that they suspended the program," said Mark Ketterer, director of maintenance for AAR Aircraft Services in Duluth. The aircraft maintenance and repair facility has hired two of the WITC’s composites graduates. They came out well-trained and didn’t take long to get "up to speed."

"Their program was good when it started; it got better at the end," Ketterer said, when it expanded to include both fabrication and repair. "On the other hand, our need is not nearly as great as Cirrus or Kestrel. We could get one or two a year, that would satisfy our needs."

The composite technology course was created in response to the 2012 announcement by Kestrel Aircraft that Superior would be the production site for its all-composite, single-engine turboprop Kestrel 350. It was estimated that between 60 and 100 composite technicians would be needed, Crockett said. Currently, Kestrel’s Superior office employs about 30, most of them engineers. Whether more jobs will open is unknown.

"We’ve made no decision as to where we will finally build the Kestrel," said Alan Klapmeier, CEO of ONE Aviation, which builds the Eclipse 500 twin-engine jet and is developing the Kestrel. The business has had problems working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

"Because the state of Wisconsin has not lived up to its end of the program, we feel it’s an open issue where we will build the plane," Klapmeier said.

The fact that Superior is still being considered as a site is due to the great support the company has had from both the city and Douglas County, he said.

The decision to suspend a program isn’t taken lightly, Copenhaver said, and other administrators weighed in. The assessment went through the president’s cabinet and was supported, according to Will.

"I would love for that program to stay; it’s a wonderful program," Copenhaver said. "They have done an amazing job. It’s just the dynamics that have happened in the community right now."

While it’s nice to see a cutting-edge program like composite technology at the college, she said, it can lead to a risk if the industry doesn’t keep up and there’s a gap.

Other WITC programs that have been suspended since she came to WITC-Superior three years ago include a bricklaying course in Rice Lake and a building performance program.

Programs are reviewed on an annual basis, Will said, often leading to modification. When one is suspended, there is a three-year window to restart it if circumstances change. In his seven years with WITC, first as vice president and then president, he has never seen a suspended program restart.

Crockett said the cost to start up the composite program again would be cost-prohibitive. He’d like to see it stay. The instructor has contacted local legislators, Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen and Will to express his concerns about the suspension.

"I think this program does a lot for Superior," Crockett said. It’s been written up in Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine and prompted compliments from technical deans throughout the state. Clearwater Composites LLC in Duluth and Wipaire Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., which manufactures aircraft floats, have expressed an interest in hiring graduates from the class. It has untapped potential, from canoe and paddle making classes to providing workers for Boeing, Crockett said.

"It doesn’t need Kestrel to survive," he said.

Some WITC classes, like the marine repair course in Ashland, attract students from a great distance for jobs outside the area. That is an exception to technical college courses, Copenhaver said, not the rule. Their emphasis is on training students for local jobs.

"WITC, and tech colleges in general, does have a focus on local employers," Will said. "We are a public education institution that is primarily funded with state and local levy dollars. Matching our programming to available employment opportunities is an area of emphasis."

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