Local Aviation Company Finds Apprenticeship Program Eases Workforce Pressures

by Natasha Ashenhurst • Photos by Heather Harris, Elements Photography

A&R Aviation is no stranger to innovation and pivoting to meet a need. A Federal Aviation Administration-certified shop, A&R works on Boeing and Airbus parts. Owner Ronnie Hix started A&R by repairing classic airframes in his garage. Today, A&R works on the newer generation of Boeing planes. A&R’s commitment to reliability has built a solid reputation that spans the world.

A&R employs 30 people across the organization. Jessica Wall is A&R’s president. She joined the company 12 years ago as Hix’s assistant and has since worked her way to the top. “I started with no experience but was able to immerse myself in the operations. We reward hard work and learning on the job,” she said. 

To date, A&R’s most significant challenge is finding the right people to join the team. That’s why they were so excited to partner with an apprenticeship program known as AJAC. Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) partners with 15 Washington State school districts. AJAC creates opportunities for youth apprentices to:

  • Finish high school
  • Start their postsecondary education at little-to-no cost
  • Complete paid work experience alongside a mentor
  • Start along a path that broadens their options for the future
  • When students complete the AJAC program, they’ll have a 2,000-hour journeyman card to place them in the workforce, or they can apply it toward an 8,000-hour apprenticeship. 

“It is an important program,” said Wall. “Especially for students who may not have the means or desire to attend a traditional college. They can make the transition to full-time work seamless. In fact, some of these kids are more advanced than applicants we get elsewhere,” she said. 

A&R is working with an 18-year-old high school student from Elma who is part of Elma’s AJAC program. “He is an active employee and gets paid,” said Wall. “Elma’s AJAC program brings students out to tour A&R, then we interview the students and decide who we want to hire. Also, students choose where to work based on what’s in line with their career pathway. Right now, he is working part-time, but if he chooses to stay on after he graduates, we’d love to have him permanently,” she said.

Programs such as AJAC are helping meet workforce needs, said Wall. “We’re also innovating our company culture. Prospective employees are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them. They are looking for a culture that aligns with what they value in life. We understand that employees are also individuals with lives outside of work,” she said. “Our time is valuable. Go pick up your kids early. Go to the soccer game. We’re in this together.”

Mary Roberts serves as the Career Connected Coordinator for Elma High School. She said, “We worked with AJAC to place five students in the manufacturing pathway last May. Currently, we have three interns at Sierra Pacific, one at A&R Aviation and one at Vaughn Company. It has been a great experience so far. This is where education needs to be. We know that most kids learn best through hands-on learning. We’ve watched them blossom.”

Christi Kershaw is the Career and Technical Education Director at Elma High School and is excited about what programs such as AJAC can provide students and employers. “I hope students realize there are multiple routes they can take in their career journey. I love that programs like this offer them a sense of the value of work and allow them to practice those essential skills they won’t experience until they are in the workforce,” she said. 

Kershaw hopes students realize apprenticeships and trades are a valuable route to a career.

“I want students to realize that even if they want to go to university, the real-world experience they’ll receive through programs like AJAC are invaluable and so much better than theory alone,” said Kershaw.

And while Kershaw is unapologetically supportive of this program, she recognizes some barriers that will take a regional effort to overcome. “Lack of reliable transportation and the cost and time it takes to get a driver’s license are a barrier for many families who would otherwise jump at the chance to be part of this program. This is especially true in rural areas. We’re working on creative solutions such as offering vouchers and pairing kids, so they have at least one reliable vehicle between them, but we ask that employers give these students grace as many will find it challenging to get to work.”

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