Airlines are paying pilots to travel to job interviews. Air traffic controllers are in demand and the market for experts in unmanned aircraft programs is "insane," according to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor Leo Murphy.
Pasco County school officials hope to tap into this demand with a new regional career training partnership with schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas and with Tampa International Airport.
It comes courtesy of the Florida Legislature.
Lawmakers included in next year's budget $1.5 million in one-time funding for a Pasco County Regional STEM School/Tampa Bay Region Aeronautics initiative, as well as $500,000 in recurring money for the project. They also provided $1 million to further Embry-Riddle's growing high school dual-enrollment programs, which entered Pasco and Pinellas counties this year.
State Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican, put the money into the budget. He has long supported the creation of a science magnet school for Pasco County but saw the idea vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2013.
This year, Legg tied the idea to the governor's oft-stated goal of job creation, connecting the plan to a new aeronautics career academy at Sunlake High School in Land O'Lakes. He sweetened the pot by working with Pasco district leaders to create a regional initiative, including students from Pinellas and Hillsborough and establishing a new certification program with internships at TIA.
"We are the workforce for aeronautics education going forward," Legg said. "I think it's a pretty big deal. … We are cautiously optimistic about the governor."
Pasco schools assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said he had not yet spoken with counterparts in Hillsborough or Pinellas schools. He was optimistic about connecting to the aerospace programs in place at Robinson High and Clearwater High.
The ties to TIA, along with the possibility of an airport management certification and on-site training, could prove to be a powerful lure, he said.
"The focus is to ramp up aviation in the tricounty area," Gadd said.
Airport officials have expressed enthusiasm for the idea, which comes as TIA embarks on a $1 billion expansion. Students could learn about all aspects of the industry, from concessions to flight management, in the fledgling program.
"It's a great opportunity to develop the aviation leaders of the future," spokeswoman Janet Zink said.
She noted that TIA already has interns from area universities. "This is different because it's with a high school," Zink said. "We haven't done anything like that."
Murphy said high school students would have a huge advantage to get this type of training.
"We'll pioneer it with Pasco County and Tampa International Airport. But what you're probably looking at is an exportable model to any major airport," Murphy said.
As Pasco connects with the airport, it also intends to open aerospace opportunities to more students, Gadd said. The administration is looking into allowing other county high schools to offer introductory aerospace courses to ninth- and 10th-graders, with those who want to pursue the full program able to transfer to Sunlake High as juniors.
Zephyrhills Municipal Airport aims to participate in the initiative, too. The airport has a flight training provider and a company involved in drone technology, said director Michael Handrahan.
"I just think there are some very good partnerships that are possible," Handrahan said.
Murphy said he expected that the university's $1 million allocation would be spent primarily to expand its presence in schools and pay for more teachers.
Many of the details and negotiations remain ahead, Gadd said, with the governor's decision the final hurdle.
"We think we can put these kids through and put them into the market," Gadd said. "Once you can get a graduating class out there, you can demonstrate its value."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]