After successfully developing a series of campuses across the country, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance set its eyes on the Chicago area a year ago as the location for its next outpost. And on Wednesday, September 15, elected leaders, community members and executives of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance will gather at 3711 S. Ashland Avenue in the McKinley Park neighborhood to celebrate and commence the opening of the nation’s single largest aviation maintenance education facility.
The bull run in industrial real estate that the country has been witnessing over the last year and a half has been a boon to logistics, manufacturing, and other traditional industrial uses, but at the same time, the increasing demand and need for skilled labor is another piece of the equation which could actually end up impacting some of the exponential industrial growth we’re seeing in the Chicago area and beyond.
And this is where the Aviation Institute of Maintenance comes in, says Dr. Joel English, the company’s Executive Vice President.
“You hear a lot about industrial, but not a whole lot about industrial education,” English says. “And that’s a reality that is hampering the growth of a lot of organizations like airlines, maintenance repair stations, and even manufacturers.”
The Virginia-based company, which operates 14 campuses under the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM) flag and six Centura College locations within Virginia, has big plans for the Chicago area, which will not only provide training towards FAA certification for aircraft mechanics, but will ultimately also offer programs and training for skilled careers in welding, CNC operation, and manufacturing. Currently, the organization has roughly 5,000 students enrolled across the country.
After the first five years of operation, the Chicago location could support upwards of 600 students, English says, providing a pathway to gainful employment for graduates while also bolstering the local workforce for businesses like Boeing, United, and the numerous other companies that operate in and around the city’s airports. However, the skills taught are also transferable to other roles in heavy industry, English adds.
“I’ve heard over and over again that [hiring managers] need people who know something about manufacturing, they need welders, they need CNC operators or they need aviation mechanics,” English says about the demand for skilled labor. “And we do well when industry says yes, I know there’s a workforce in Chicago that is trained and ready to hire, so I’ll move there.”
While AIM has had success with repurposing shuttered retail locations, such as a former Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Charlotte, an old Circuit City store in northern Virginia, or a former Saturn dealership in central Florida, the organization opted for a 20-year, single-tenant lease of the new industrial facility at 3711 S. Ashland developed by Logistics Property Company. In his experience, some of the benefits retail locations tend to offer are available parking and central location near communities, English says.
But after taking the entire 137,000-square-foot South Ashland facility, the space that was originally designed for and meant to accommodate 18-wheeler parking was converted into standard vehicle parking for AIM’s upcoming students. With an expectation of having upwards of 600 students enrolled, the school needed roughly 350 parking spaces to be feasible.
Additionally, forming partnerships with the City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools was a crucial component of the deal, English suggests. Students who have successfully completed relevant courses in high school will be able to roll those credits over into AIM’s maintenance program. And students enrolled at Olive-Harvey College will be able to take courses at AIM, “making it very affordable for them,” English adds.
English also credits broker Michael Conway, VP with JLL, as being essential to not only the site selection, but in helping to connect AIM to and build a partnership with World Business Chicago, which in turn put the plan on the mayor’s radar. Gavin Stainthorpe, also a VP at JLL, worked on the deal with Conway.
“I always get to know and work with the community before I bring a school into town, but the kind of the business group that is World Business Chicago is one that I don’t know that I would have figured out without his help on that,” English says of the collaboration.
Conway says that the South Ashland site came out on top not only for being a newly completed building, but for its central location near population density. Additionally, industrial properties typically offer a more competitive value proposition over retail locations, Conway suggests.
“What’s interesting is a large e-commerce company built a brand new facility at 35th and Ashland just two blocks north, so I think everyone thought that this was going to be a last-mile distribution play,” Conway says of the South Ashland location. “But those aren’t the only companies who go to the city, right?”
In many ways, an e-commerce company’s need to be near population density is the same as AIM’s when it comes to student body and talent pool. However, Conway also highlights the need to be accessible for commuter students coming from the suburbs as well. Conway says that being within Chicago proper was “faraway the winner” and made more sense than being out in a far-flung suburb or edge city.
“If you’re in Melrose Park or Skokie, or up in Highland Park or Glenview, it’s easier to get to 37th and Ashland than somewhere down I-55 in the south suburbs,” Conways says of the location. “How is that different than going to Columbia, Roosevelt, or UIC, especially, which is known as a commuter school?”
While the South Ashland facility is also located near Midway Airport, both Conway and English say that being close to an airport was not a priority. English goes even further and calls the idea that an aviation maintenance school needs to be near an airport a “myth,” instead suggesting that it’s far more important to be in a location that’s more convenient for students to get to.
“If you visit any one of the other 170 aviation maintenance schools in the country, almost all of them are on an airport,” English says of the trend. “But there’s this sort of, I’m just gonna call it a myth, that if you’re doing aviation maintenance, you need to be near an airport because that’s where the airplanes are. And that is very much the opposite of the way I view things, because I can get an aircraft to a school, but what I can’t do is get the students that need to go to a technical school like mine to an airport.”
But as soon as the ribbon is cut and the Chicago school officially opens this week, it’ll be on to the next one, English says. Since the new Chicago location will be the largest in the AIM network, there aren’t any immediate plans for another Midwest outpost. However, the organization will likely be looking to open a school somewhere in the western market.
There are big hopes for the Chicago facility and what it could mean to its immediate community and the opportunities for public school students who may have never considered a career in aircraft maintenance, Conway says.
“To me, the exciting part is just being able to create well-paying jobs in Chicago. And it’s happening in Chicago; it’s a great place to work and a great place to live.”