Airspace over Mobile is busier than usual, now that the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley is delivering A321s to Spirit, Frontier, American, JetBlue and Delta Airlines, among other North American customers. Delta picked up its first Mobile-made A321 on December 2nd, the first of many for the Atlanta-based carrier that will be assembled at the $600-million facility where production got under way in 2015. That jet was the 15th produced in Mobile in 2016. The Aeroplex is part of the Mobile Airport Authority’s portfolio of air service properties and the one it plans to turn into an aerospace and transportation-based industrial hub. Airbus is central to that.
Airbus can also assemble smaller A319 and A320 aircraft at the facility; plans call for production of four aircraft per month in 2017 and 40 to 50 aircraft annually by 2018. The assembly operation isn’t the European aerospace giant’s first foray into the Mobile area — it’s the third. Airbus’ Engineering Center with more than 200 engineers and support staff is also at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, and its North American military customer services operation supporting US Coast Guard aircraft is near the Mobile Regional Airport.
When Airbus announced the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley — a 3,000-acre (1,215-hectare) former Air Force base that had closed in 1969 — as the location for its new assembly facility, suppliers soon followed suit with projects in the Mobile area and the broader Gulf Coast region — already home to a significant aerospace industry cluster. They came to Brookley, too. Labinal, through its Safran Engineering Services subsidiary, was the first, with an engineering support facility that will employ up to 50. Zodiac Aerospace, which makes cabin interiors, was another. Today, the Aeroplex is home to dozens of aerospace and transportation companies involved in air support, MRO, aircraft painting and other services.
No Labor Shortage Here
Staffing the new facility, even with the new and expanding suppliers, has been problem-free.
“We never had a doubt we’d find the skilled workforce we need to produce our aircraft,” says Jennifer Ogle, head of human resources at the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility. “The Gulf Coast has a strong military presence (currently, approximately 30 percent of the employees we have hired are military veterans who bring a high skill level and work ethic to the table); other aerospace companies in close proximity; and a large amount of people from around the US who could use this opportunity to come home. More than 80 percent of our current hires are from the Gulf Coast Region — Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. A high number of Gulf Coast natives is good for retention and for drawing experienced aviation professionals to come work with us.”
Can Airbus count on that labor supply into the future?
“It’s important to remember that Airbus has had a presence in Mobile for nearly 11 years through our Defense and Space Military Aircraft facility and 10 years with our Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile,” Ogle points out. “From the beginning of our operations here, we have engaged with the schools in our community starting at the elementary level through the middle, high and college levels to encourage the basics (stay in school, improve reading skills) and then interest in STEM subjects in various activities such as mentoring students in robotics competitions (BEST Robotics), encouraging more girls/women to consider engineering and manufacturing careers (Girl Scouts Wing It program, Women in Aviation, etc.).
“With the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility coming online,” Ogle adds, “we are continuing and expanding on those activities. Airbus truly believes we are investing in our future by investing in our future aviation professionals. In addition, Alabama and the Mobile area have a strong focus on workforce development, and we support those agencies and initiatives through direct involvement and having a voice. This includes a renewed focus on optimizing the local aviation college, the advanced Manufacturing Center at Brookley and having AIDT as a partner in workforce development of the future employee base.”
Research Component Takes Shape
The next chapter in Brookley’s rebirth as an aerospace industry hub is an academic research center now taking shape in vintage 1940s former Air Force base buildings repurposed for research. It’s the Alabama Aviation Innovation and Research Center (A²IRc), the mission of which, as defined by the Mobile Airport Authority, is a public/private partnership that will serve as a nexus for all levels of education, academic disciplines, the arts, workforce development solutions and industry to unite in a truly collaborative space to inspire youth, foster innovation, increase competitiveness and be a beacon for economic development.
A²IRc occupies 80,000 sq. ft. (7,400 sq. m.) in three connected buildings adjacent to the AIDT (Alabama Industrial Development Training)/Airbus Training Center and Alabama Aviation College. The Commander’s Building, A²IRc’s centerpiece, will serve as Airbus’ welcome center. A wing known as the Atrium will host academic programs organized by several Alabama colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama, Auburn, the University of South Alabama, Bishop State Community College, Tuskegee University and Troy University. Those familiar with Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR) center near Greenville, South Carolina, will notice similarities at A²IRc.
Mark Arend has been editor in chief of Site Selection magazine since 2001. Prior to joining the editorial staff in 1997, he worked for 10 years in New York City at Wall Street Computer Review, ABA Banking Journal and Global Investment Technology. Mark graduated from the University of Hartford (Conn.) in 1985 and lives near Atlanta, Georgia.