CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — California City, it's the state's third largest city by land and home to around 14,000 residents. The city is also surrounded by planes. Edwards Air Force Base is just five miles away, the Mojave Air and Space Port, Norm Hill Aviation and the local airport nearby.
"So, this valley has an aviation background, right? We have done all of the testing of experimental aircraft, and new designs and the Air Force and it all happens here," says Norm Hill, CEO and President of Norm Hill Aviation Incorporated.
But Susan Clipperton, the CTE coordinator for Mojave Unified School District says what's not nearby is, "The nearest college is 40 miles away."
Dr. Katherine Aguirre, who is the Superintendent of Mojave Unified School District says the student demographic is pretty evenly split.
"We have about a third of our students are African American, a third are English learners and Latino, and we have about a third that are Caucasian. There's a pretty low socioeconomic area for most, not all and we have a high English learner population," says Dr.Aguirre.
Recently California City High School added a new class to their curriculum. Aircraft Maintenance Technology and now it has about 10% of the student population enrolled in it says Clipperton. The new program has also partnered with Antelope Valley College in Lancaster which allows students to be dually enrolled so they can take their high school courses while earning college credit.
Clipperton has been involved in creating the program with the state and says what makes this program unique is having such a technical college course at a high school but also says, "It's the only high school that has this program. There are other classes, there's lots of technical classes. There's a lot of very good classes but to have the FAA approval and to have the dual enrollment that's the only one in California that I know of."
Now schools across the state are contacting Cal City High School for curriculum guidance. The new course allows students to work toward an Airframe and Power Plant License which is a special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Norm Hill, who has 50 years of experience in the aviation field is also also one of the advocates who launched the idea in its early stages.
"It means everything. If you don't have an FAA certification then you're just a guy out there working on airplanes, and you're not going to be able and go get a job everywhere."
But Mike Kirkley, who has 47 years of experience as an aircraft mechanic is the teacher who has been keeping the course flying high.
"Make no mistake college is important too. I'm not saying it's not but college is not for everybody. So, the idea is if we can give these kids the basic leg up if you will to help them get their foot in the door so to speak or get the rudimentary skill, then we've done our job," says Kirkley.
Superintendent Dr. Aguirresays the classes success is due an overwhelming amount of community support and the efforts of Mr. Kirkley.
"We have an FAA certification, like that's the epitome of, wow. You couldn't do that without someone that's that passionate," says Dr. Aguirre.
The classroom at Cal City High School use to be an old wood shop but now it's the biggest classroom on campus, filled with jet engines and new tools. Clipperton says it cost over a million dollars just to get the program running and supply the tools.
The course at Cal City High requires students to take a series of three courses over the span of three years which will result in students working toward their 450-hour requirement for their A&P license and student don't pay for the course while they are dually enrolled, which Clipperton says saves students thousands of dollars. The class is designed to teach students the rudimentary basics of aircraft mechanics but Clipperton says this course isn't just limiting students to only work on aircraft.
"They can go directly into a four-year university and work on an engineering degree very easily, or they can go to an entry level job. It's their choice," says Clipperton.
She says the district realized there was a community interest and need for industry jobs in the aviation field.
"There's lot of jobs available around us, but how many high paying jobs are there? When young people can work with their hands and earn a credential that feeds them right into a high paying job," says Clippteron.
Jack Halliday who is the professor of Aeronautics an Antelope Valley College and the professor students see next if they continue to pursue their A&P license after Cal City. Halliday says many students end up making"...About $23 to $30 bucks an hour right away. That's pretty good for an 18 - 19-year-old kid."
He says it's not just about the money the students make who they become.
"When you get that little blue card from the FAA you're somebody special. When you put that card on the table you're respected in the industry, you're respected around the world. And that means a lot, that means a lot for a person," says Halliday.
According to Boeing's Pilot and Technician Outlook Report 2020–2039, over the past years the number of new personnel entering the industry was lagging. Which Boeing says left the industry challenged to find new talent. Creating a concern since many experienced technicians were approaching retirement age.
The report also says there is a current industry downturn since COVID-19. Which has created what they call "a temporary oversupply of qualified personnel" but Boeing maintains that the long term need for workers remains strong. According to Boeing's2020–2039 report they project there will be a need of, " 739,000 new maintenance technicians....to maintain the global fleet over the next 20 years."
One of the main takeaways from the recent report says in part, "Despite a large number of aircraft in storage, technicians continue to play a vital role in ensuring the aircraft remain airworthy....The need for continued maintenance of the parked fleet has mitigated the impact on technician employment worldwide."
Many of the students who were in Mr. Kirkley's class are aiming to get their AMP license now that they've graduated high school, and the ones I spoke to are already beginning their careers.
Kevin Koper, is a current student at Antelope Valley College, and he's also a jet mechanic at Mojave Airport.
"I graduated from high school and then after that I get a call saying hey you want a job? I'm like what are you serious about this?" said Koper.
His dad Brian Koper says the course his son took back in high school has changed him, made his son more responsible and, "He asked us, "What do I do with my check?" Cause he's never had that much money before in his life. So, I told him just save it. Save it."
It's also made Kevin proud of his own accomplishments. "I never thought I'd get this far. I've always thought high school and then what next? I don't know, but hey I'm still here and I'm doing something with my life."
And Kevin isn't the only student. Edwin Figueroa Osorio and Javin Brown are both jet mechanics at Edwards Air Force Base. Both students say finding a job right away out of high school is hard in California City but they did it and it's opened their mind to other possibilities.
"Well I came from an immigrant mom so she came here to this country with barely nothing and she told me to see her son grow up and end up somewhere I did, she's really proud of me. So, I feel that I've accomplished a little to what I think I should be able to do," says Figueroa Osorio.
Javin Brown tells 23ABC, "I'm proud that I found something to do because I didn't know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to go right to school after high school - right to college, but then COVID happened. That changed everything. So, I wanted to focus more on getting a job and start helping pay around the house because it's not cheap living out here even though there's nothing to do out here."
Greg Peria, who is the Production Superintendent at Edwards Air Force Base says the Cal City program is a feeder to get entry level employees at Edwards.
"They've been able to come right in to the shop, grab the tools, they're familiar with them and get right to work with our people who have been doing it for years," says Peria.
Superintendent Dr. Aguirre says the hands-on training students receive from the course make them prime candidates for jobs. "You have the ability to walk into a recruiters office with tangible experience, right? As discussed earlier it's one thing to get book knowledge and it's one thing to understand what theory is and what theoretically would work in a lab or in a mechanic shop situation. But when you can say I've done that, I know how to do that, here let me show you, it's just a different confidence that you walk in with and you have a better chance at getting that job," says Aguirre.
And for Mr. Hill, he says it's all about coming full circle and giving students and families a chance to build their own sucess, "The other good thing is we will be supplying people into the job market for our valley. So, that they can stay in their valley with their families and where they grew up and make a decent wage."