Flying High

$21 Million Expansion to Pima Community College’s Aviation Technology Center

By Tara Kirkpatrick

Near the thunderous roar of planes at Tucson International Airport sits Pima Community College’s newly expanded Aviation Technology Center—a $21 million-upgrade that will fuel a skilled workforce into the regional and global industry.

The expansion, celebrated in an Oct. 20 ribbon cutting, more than doubles the state-of-the-art facility from 35,000 square feet to 87,000 square feet and adds a second hangar large enough for large commercial aircraft, five new classrooms, five new labs, a new tool crib, break room and new offices for the administrative team. The modern center, with its stately blue exterior, sits on the airport grounds. M3 and Barker Contracting served as architect and builder, respectively.

“Today is not only a celebration of the completion of this project, but its importance to the aviation industry,” PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert told local officials and aviation students in attendance.  The $21 million project was bolstered by a $15 million appropriation in the state budget. 

PCC Governing Board Vice Chair Demion Clinco said, “This is part of a bigger strategy for Pima College, which is building centers of excellence that align to the industries of Southern Arizona so that people in our community can get careers with high paying wages without going into debt. And this facility is the manifestation in reality.”

In 2018, when this expansion was first proposed, about 30% of the current ranks of aircraft mechanics were at or near retirement age, and those workers are still retiring faster than they can be replaced. Clinco cited Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook that projects 754,000 new airline maintenance technicians will be needed worldwide over the next 20 years. Economic Modeling Specialists, an employment data firm, estimates a 40% increase in aviation jobs for the region alone, compared to the national average of 10%.

“Pima County represents the largest concentration of aviation occupations in Southern Arizona, which is why this facility is key to Southern Arizona’s economic growth,” Clinco said. 

Lambert added that a 2021 Federal Aviation Administration report anticipates a future of nearly 1 billion U.S. air passengers—a 10-fold increase from a decade ago. “Just a billion of us flying around in the air. So keep that in mind in terms of the significance of this project.”

During COVID in the U.S. alone, 23,000 aviation technicians left the industry, said Dave Querio, president and CEO of Ascent Aviation Services, a Marana, Ariz.-based aircraft maintenance company.

Querio said he employs 550 people throughout his three facilities in Tucson and New Mexico and he is currently short 130 technicians. “I have never seen our industry in such a shortage of technicians,” he said, addressing the students. “I’m so proud and I’m so pleased that you guys elected to come into aviation maintenance. It’s a great field… it’ll take you all around the world. Always know you’re going to be in high demand.”

PCC offers an associate of applied science degree in aviation technology and accompanying certificates for direct employment in the areas of airframe and powerplant, structural repair and avionics. The college is also one of only a handful of 160 FAA-approved schools that offers curriculum that targets large commercial jets.

With this expansion, PCC will double its enrollment and serve approximately 250 students per year. Combining lectures, hands-on work and independent projects, the program places nearly 90% of its graduates in top aerospace and defense jobs after graduation. The median annual earnings of those jobs range from $57,000 to $65,000.

In addition to many supportive partners, PCC leaders publicly thanked two state senators—Vince Leach and David Gowan–who were instrumental in lobbying the governor’s office and state legislators to allot the substantive $15 million appropriation for the expansion. 

“When we were approached by Lee and Demion and their team about this dream, I would say we listened,” said Gowan. “We want to bring more economic viability to Southern Arizona…this is a wonderful dream realized.”

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