Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2019 issue
According to the FAA’s Aeronautical Center, the estimate of certificated aviation mechanics on record is 292,002 as of December 31st, 2018. Women represent only 2.44% of these certificate holders for a grand total of 7,133 women in this career field (www.faa.gov). The organization, Women in Aviation International, reports that “During the last two decades, the number of women involved in the aviation industry has steadily increased and women can be found in nearly every aviation occupation today. However, the numbers are small by comparison.” Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC), and students enrolled in the program are helping to continue the trajectory forward to increase the number of women in aviation careers.
In February 2019, Havie Lee, Administrative Specialist at Northland’s Aerospace site, sat down to interview Amber Mielke and Kathryn Brown, two female students enrolled in the college’s aviation maintenance technology program. The account tells the story about the exciting opportunities that exist in aviation. The discussion began with their unique backgrounds and what attracted them to a career in aviation maintenance and why they came to NCTC in Thief River Falls, Minnesota.
Amber Mielke: Originally from Becker, Minnesota. Montissippi County Park had an area where she grew up flying model airplanes with her father, which were built from scratch. She also helped with the weight and balance needed to determine the distance, elevation, and speed for them, and thus first became interested in aviation.
Mielke currently works for Cirrus Aircraft as a technician layup, building Vision Jet parts that range from ruddervators to engine bulkheads. Before this, she worked at Delta Airlines as a ramp agent, and was a load captain at FedEx prior to that. Her dream is to become a bush/missionary pilot, and one of the requirements for that is an A&P license, which is what brought her to Northland Aerospace! After researching schools and learning through word of mouth, Northland became the best option in her pursuit. She also has an interest in crafting homebuilt aircraft in the future.
Kathryn Brown: Grew up in Seattle, Washington. Growing up, the biggest presence of aviation was simply knowing that Boeing was local to the area and employed many people; outside of that, she didn’t have many experiences that were specific to aviation. She originally wanted to go to school to become a veterinarian, but after much research, decided the career wasn’t for her. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she spent a few years not really knowing what she wanted to do. A fateful move to Williston, North Dakota prompted her to take a job at the local airport, where she worked as a Line Service Technician for Signature Flight Support.
Brown loved her job there, eventually taking on the title of trainer for new service techs coming in. While on the job, she met the mechanic that would stoke her interest for the maintenance side of things, Arlen Sandland. As a Northland alumni, he illuminated the aspects of being an aviation maintenance technician, and although she loved her job and the people she interacted with on a daily basis as a service tech, she wanted to pursue her A&P license. After coming for a tour at Northland Aerospace, Brown solidified her decision, and hasn’t looked back since.
In a general discussion, both students described a typical day in the classroom at NCTC.
In the classroom, there is something new to do and learn every day, and it is clear how instrumental and important the knowledge will be for the future. It is a very hands-on environment, and very different from attending a university. It is fun working in the shop and getting partnered with new individuals, as you get to see how different people learn and how you interact.
Mielke and Brown have had an opportunity to work on a variety of projects, as the hangar is host to a multitude of different aircraft, including a DC-9. The experience of the instructors themselves and their extensive backgrounds in aviation are also extremely helpful to learn from. Both students enjoy being a part of the school’s Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) club, where Mielke is vice president and Brown is secretary. They feel it has been a great introduction to potential careers in the industry and take in as much as they can from the tours they go on and conferences they attend as part of the club.
Since looking into a career in aviation, Mielke and Brown both experienced things that have surprised them.
Brown: Surprised at how inclusive, friendly, and positive so many people in the aviation community are. It’s almost like a big club.
Mielke: The realization of just how many different career paths exist in aviation is staggering.
Another discussion led to what they saw as the characteristics they thought someone should have to excel in the aviation maintenance industry.
Patience, ability to troubleshoot, organizational skills, a good work ethic, and being open to continually learning. This isn’t a field where you learn all there is to know!
How do you think the program and industry could attract more females?
Brown: Target them young! Many females are taught from a young age that certain things are only for men, including the trades, so there’s some discouragement from peers, family, etc., about entering predominantly male careers. There’s also a lack of knowledge in grade schools about trade schools in general.
Mielke: Females need to know they can fight for their dreams and not let other people dictate their choices. The more women that join the industry, the better.
When asked what they thought about the outlook for opportunities in the aviation industry, they both had positive things to say.
The field is booming right now…people are retiring and there are a ton of companies looking to fill those vacancies. There is a lot of room for growth in the aviation field, and as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are gaining in use and becoming more prominent in our world, aviation will become even more key alongside it. While the future is always an unknown, every sign points to great things at the moment.
This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (DUE 1501629 and DUE 1700615). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.