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Offutt gives students a chance at mechanics

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFNS) -- Students studying airframe and power plant disciplines at Iowa Western Community College have a unique opportunity to intern with the 55th Maintenance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base.

Twelve years ago, the squadron cut roughly 300 military slots and replaced them with approximately 150 civilian slots in a move to save the Air Force money. The squadron hired their civilians from a pool filled predominately with retired Air Force service members; that pool has been getting smaller.

"Basically, about nine months ago we were having trouble hiring civilians to fill slots that were coming open," said Wayne Welter, the aircraft maintenance flight chief.

"What we've been trying to do is recruit across the nation, but one of the issues is we are one of the lower-paying areas because our economy is really good here in the Midwest," Welter added. "It's hard to get people to move from the East and West Coasts to come here and take a drop in pay."

By recruiting from IWCC near Offutt AFB, the 55th MXS is able to give students experience, and there is an added bonus after graduation.

"We give them an opportunity while they're in school, to come over here and get paid, get job experience,” Welter said. “If we have open slots once they graduate they can be hired. It's great for us, because they don't have to be trained and they have the experience already. They can come right in, and we can continue working without skipping a beat."

Even if the squadron doesn't have any open positions, the students are qualified for any Defense Department aircraft mechanic position.

"Trying to get into a government job without a military background is hard, but this internship was a nice gateway for that," said David Garretson, a second-year student in the program. He has been interning with the squadron since October.

Students ideally begin the program, known as the Grow Your Own Mechanic Program, in their first year. They compete amongst themselves for the six slots. If chosen, they start working 10 hours a week. As they grow more proficient, their hours are increased. Students must have 642 hours upon graduation to be hired.

"The first priority is their schooling, and we don't want to interfere with that," Welter said.

Even outside of the DOD, this internship provides students with valuable experience, he said.

"They will be qualified mechanics once they graduate, but the problem is people are looking for experience," Welter said. "Just because you have the book knowledge doesn't mean you'll be able to find a job. Most of their training too, is on the smaller Cessna planes, which are completely different from what we have here. They're getting valuable experience they might not get otherwise."

There are currently three students in the program, but Welter said he hopes to bring the number up to six.

"We have a full force right now, but any day we could have three or four retirements, or someone could be married to a military member who PCSs (permanent change of station) to another base," Welter said. "The more we can train, the better we can be down the road."

By recruiting from close to home, Welter said he hopes to encourage the students to stay close to home.

"I think it'll encourage people to stay in the area, because if a job opens, it's a great job to have," Garretson said. "A lot of the guys who work in this shop were in the military for several years beforehand, and for many of them this was their first base. They decided to work the civilian side after leaving the military, which says a lot for the area."