Saturday, March 30, 2013

Light Sport America: Mobile Classrooms Give New Aircraft Maker, Employees a Leg Up

BARTOW | Arthur Burns is an Air Force veteran who worked on helicopter gunships. Nicole Mutton is a young and eager graduate of an aviation academy. Larry O'Dell has an extensive background in manufacturing.

In the very near future, all three will be producing aircraft for a new Bartow firm, Light Sport America.

Getting there has been an interesting process. For the last two weeks, Burns, Mutton, O'Dell and 14 other new hires have been training for their jobs in a high-tech mobile classroom parked outside Light Sport's headquarters at the Bartow Municipal Airport industrial park.

The innovative training program, facilitated by the Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), will help Light Sport quickly establish its workforce and begin making planes.

"It's really been a godsend for us," said Harrell Ward, Light Sport's chief operating officer. "It's helped us find high-quality people and train them all at a base knowledge so we can bring them in and hit the ground, really running."

Light Sport has big plans. The new company settled here in January after buying the assets of Italian manufacturer Storm­Aircraft, and Ward said he expects to produce its first planes by mid-June.

The propeller planes, classified as light sport aircraft, are small and simple to operate, ideal for aviation enthusiasts and government use, Ward said.

Prices will range from about $89,000 to $136,000. If all goes well — Light Sport has advance orders for about 60 planes — the company will have hired 45 employees or so by the end of the year, with plans to grow to roughly 100 by the end of 2014, Ward said.

Finding qualified candidates for aircraft manufacturing is no easy matter, Ward says, but his company has received a lot of help.

The Polk Works employment services agency helped with recruiting and screening applicants, and the Celebration-based Florida MEP is providing training services at no cost through a U.S. Department of Labor grant. The government funding is intended to help manufacturing firms train new hires in the 23-county region known as Florida's High Tech Corridor, addressing a shortage of skilled workers.

"It's advanced technical training, very hands-on," said Ted Astolfi, deputy director of the Florida MEP. "We don't have to teach the theory of manufacturing — why Henry Ford started the assembly line, all of those things. We come in and teach the skills the students need to do the job."

Light Sport is the first Polk County business to participate in the training, Astolfi said. The interior of the mobile classroom supplied by MEP is lined with computer stations running advanced virtual-reality software that simulates functions done on the shop floor.

Training wrapped up Friday for Light Sport's first group of employees, who will earn starting pay of $13.50 to $15.50 per hour.

It will be the first aviation-related job for Arthur Burns since he left the military in 2009. Burns, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said his jobs in recent years included cutting grass for the city of Lakeland and working at an Amscot office.

"A lot of people don't realize the aviation field is quite competitive, and jobs are few and far between," said the 33-year-old Winter Haven resident. "For us to be able to produce a quality aircraft like this here in Polk County, that's going to be sold potentially all over the world, it's pretty amazing."

Lakeland's Nicole Mutton, 24, said she struggled to find work since graduating from the National Aviation Academy in Clearwater last year. Landing the opportunity with Light Sport "doesn't even seem real," she said. "I'm so excited."

Larry O'Dell of Lake Wales is a former plant manager with experience in machining and design work. Despite his seasoned background, O'Dell, 68, said he spent several months looking for a job that wouldn't require a long commute.

"This is a great opportunity for me and everyone here," he said. "It gives me a fresh start. It gives me a chance to feel productive and useful."

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