Friday, March 23, 2012

Kestrel creates soaring optimism in local job market

Amid worries over the local and national economic downturn and difficult employment prospects for college graduates, Kestrel Aircraft Company’s decision to touch down in Superior has students in the manufacturing programs at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College feeling confident about their employment prospects.

“You know I would never want to sit behind a desk,” said Karla Phillips, a welding student at WITC. “The job market is open to everybody. If you can weld, build, drill a hole in metal, you will make money.”

Three years ago, Alan Klapmeier, chief executive officer of Kestrel, started the engines by talking about his developing aircraft company. Those talks eventually took flight and now Kestrel’s public relations representative, Kate Dougherty, says they are hoping to break ground in Superior this spring on the first of two buildings.

A 35,000-square-foot facility is planned for Winter Street Industrial Park and will be used to manufacture airplane parts. A 50,000-square-foot building will be located near the Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport and will be used to assemble flight-ready airplanes and house the company’s headquarters.

Dougherty estimates the creation of 600 jobs, which is approximately two percent of Superior’s entire population. Job creation will take place over the course of the next five years, but more than 15 positions for engineers and a handful of manufacturing positions are already available, according to the company’s website.

Dougherty says Kestrel is currently considering utilizing the Superior campus of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College for training the employees they may need in the future.

This wouldn’t be the first time WITC helped produce employees for the aircraft manufacturing industry’s workforce. The college had adjusted its curriculum for Cirrus Design ten years ago, and some of the equipment that would be needed to train the numerous new Kestrel employees will already be there.

That’s a good thing when talking about producing the number of employees necessary to staff a production of this size, said Charlie Glazman, associate dean at WITC.

“They’re hiring a variety of different jobs,” said Glazman, “welders, machine tool operators and industrial maintenance technicians.”

Though training for most of these positions is already offered through some of WITC’s programs, the welding equipment and training needed for Kestrel employees may need a specialized program in the future because of the composite material used to build the aircraft.

According to Glazman, there are many reasons why Kestrel has advantages in the state of Wisconsin, including one that would get the company’s mechanical falcons off the ground more quickly. It only takes 90 days to get a building permit in Wisconsin; Minnesota’s process could take up to two years.

In Wisconsin, companies can receive grants to cover about 75 percent of the cost of training new employees. Douglas County also has a development team, comprised of people from the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District, Development Association and other organizations, which meets on a regular basis to discuss the various needs of local businesses.

For Kestrel, there is still a stretch of runway before it can take off, but according to Dougherty, the skies are clear, there is plenty of fuel and the engines are running smoothly.

“It is going to happen,” said Dougherty. “It won’t be tomorrow, not this week, not this year, but gradually we will get there.”

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