By Sarah Favot
When she was a senior at Poly High School in Sun Valley, Monica Hernandez knew she didn’t want to go to an expensive college, leaving her and her parents with a financial burden.
So when she heard from a guidance counselor about a career in the trades and a district program that trains students to be aircraft mechanics, Hernandez was interested.
“To be able to say I’m going to be an airplane mechanic, that’s going to be cooler,” she said.
Hernandez, 20, is one of a growing number of young women who are enrolled at North Valley Occupational Center’s Aviation Center at the Van Nuys Airport, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Adult and Career Education program.
The school offers daytime and evening classes for students to prepare for the Federal Aviation Administration licensing exam for airframe and powerplant mechanics. Of the school’s 150 students, about 10 percent are female, according to district figures, higher than the national average for women in the profession — less than 3 percent.
Ed Holyoke, who has taught at the school for five years and attended the school as an adult, said he’s seen a gradual increase in the number of women who have enrolled.
“The industry is more and more realizing that diversity is a plus, not a minus,” Holyoke said. “And that women tend to be meticulous, which in this industry, meticulous is where it’s about. You have to get it right because lives are at stake.”
Hernandez said being one of a few girls in a program of mostly men and some older men, has challenges. Sometimes the guys question whether she is getting attention from the teacher or a job because she is female. Those types of comments used to bother Hernandez, but she has learned to brush it off.
“It does build a better character, a stronger character, but it’s nothing that should bring you down, not at all, because it is a great industry to work in,” she said.
The school opened in 1973 and appeals to students launching their careers or making a career shift. Classroom instruction is mixed with hands-on experience in a hangar at the site so students can practice on propeller aircraft, helicopters and jets, including a retired Learjet 24 donated by Clay Lacy Aviation.
Clay Lacy, a private jet charter and aircraft management and maintenance provider with a repair station at the Van Nuys Airport, has donated more than $10,000 in scholarships to reduce tuition costs for more than 100 students who attend the Aviation Center. Tuition for full-time students is $1,200 a year.
Scott Cutshall, Clay Lacy’s vice president of brand development, said the company started the scholarship program in 2015 to give back to the community.
“We just feel fortunate to have the school here, so that’s one of the big reasons why we want to support it,” Cutshall said.
Clay Lacy also benefits from having students graduate from the program. The company employs several of the school’s alumni.
“This is here and this is a very unique program,” Cutshall said. “This doesn’t exist, I don’t think, at any other airport that I’m aware of in California where it’s run by a local school district.”
The industry faces a shortage of workers because much of the workforce — 30 percent — is retiring or near retirement, according to the Aviation Technician Education Council.
“We do need more mechanics in our industry, there’s a massive shortage right now,” Cutshall said
Clay Lacy has 15 open positions for aircraft mechanics and companies all over the industry are hiring, Cutshall said.
Programs like the Aviation Center are unique and many similar programs throughout Southern California have shut down, Ed Mirzakhanian, Clay Lacy’s vice president of maintenance and business development, said.
“For a long time there wasn’t a focus of schools like this to bring a lot of new students through,” Cutshall said.
A starting salary is about $30/hour and there are opportunities to advance. Top pay for technicians is $38 to $42/hour.
Hernandez has a hectic schedule to get work experience while attending school. She has 17-hour days Monday through Friday. She attends school during the day and works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in the evenings. She gets about four hours of sleep each night, she said.
Classmate Sugun Ratti, 21, of Northridge, also works and attends the school. She is a technician apprentice at JetWorx at the Van Nuys Airport.
Ratti is planning to go to air traffic control school.
“Once I started working, it just shows you how many opportunities there are, you don’t just want to be a mechanic,” she said.
Hernandez’s ultimate goal is to work in maintenance control in the offices in the maintenance department, but she wants to get experience on the ground first.
“It’s amazing to be a woman and being able to support yourself, always, no matter what you do,” she said.