New Jersey officials are urging colleges to steer more young workers into aviation-related careers, such as the high-tech jobs that are expected at the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park.

While the planned park in Egg Harbor Township has been slower to take off than expected, area colleges are responding with programs to prepare students for work there and nationwide.

“With the decline of the gaming industry from competition elsewhere, we need to counterbalance that with more economic diversification and attract new industries here,” Atlantic County Chief of Staff Howard Kyle said. “The prime industry that is suited to Atlantic County is aviation research. Our goal has been to develop an aviation-research industry.”

Atlantic Cape Community College this year added four aviation-related degrees and a professional series certificate for students who want to be commercial airline pilots, said James Taggart, of Egg Harbor Township, a professor of information sciences at Atlantic Cape.

Taggart said federal projections for aviation-related employment and the proximity of the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center support adding the programs.

“If we didn’t have a tech center in our backyard, I don’t know how practical an aerospace engineering program would be in New Jersey,” he said.

The college is one of only two in New Jersey that offers pilot training, he said. Students there are pursuing a variety of aviation careers.

Leonardo Roman, 26, of Pleasantville, is working as a dealer at Revel in Atlantic City while he studies to become a commercial pilot. The U.S. Marine reservist said he decided to change careers after he was laid off from Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa more than two years ago.

“It was a pretty good job. But when I got laid off, it really woke me up,” he said.

Egg Harbor Township High School graduate Luke Peterson, 19, is pursuing a career as an air-traffic controller. After graduation, he could be sent to an airport practically anywhere in the country.

“It requires a lot of multitasking, a good memory and phraseology,” he said. “It’s competitive, but it’s a smaller group of people who do it.”

The students spent an afternoon training in a flight simulator at Atlantic City International Airport. The simulator, which has a bank of five monitors simulating the windows of a Cessna, rocked forward, backward and sideways on a gimbal to create the sensation of flying.

Kevin Camp, 20, of Upper Township, made his first landing in the simulator at a virtual Woodbine Municipal Airport. The Ocean City High School graduate wants to become a commercial pilot. He said he is willing to go abroad to find work.

“Germany and other countries are hiring a lot of American pilots. I’m not worried about traveling. I just want to fly,” Camp said.

Officials hope students won’t have to go quite that far to find gainful employment.

The NextGen project in Egg Harbor Township is trying to create more efficient flight routes to shorten flight times, burn less fuel and create less noise over neighborhoods. It’s just one of several programs sponsored by the Hughes Technical Center, a research, development and testing lab that works on projects ranging from aircraft safety and security to communications and air-traffic control systems.

“Our aerospace engineering program was a response to anticipated growth at the Tech Center,” Taggart said. “Most of those people are computer scientists or engineers or have a psychology background. They do a lot of human-factors testing there.”

Newly created jobs would be especially welcome in South Jersey, where unemployment rates have remained well above the national average, at 13.9 percent in Atlantic and Cumberland counties in December, 13 percent in Cape May County and 10.9 percent in Ocean County.

“It’s a natural fit for Atlantic County,” Kyle said. “Aviation right now is one of the few areas where the United States is a net exporter. It offers a lot of opportunity, especially in this new emerging area.”

A bill before state lawmakers would establish job certification, training and internship programs and provide business tax credits at county colleges and vocational schools.

Another bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, would urge Gov. Chris Christie to declare the aviation industry a critical industry in New Jersey, making available financial incentives to help aviation-related businesses.

“Our Tech Center will be validating the work of NextGen,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who recently was named chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

LoBiondo said he is optimistic about aviation prospects for South Jersey.

“After some long bumps in the road with the FAA authorization taking 22 extensions … a lot of that is behind us,” he said.

LoBiondo said the Tech Center could take a lead role in how the United States implements unmanned aerial drones into emerging commercial applications.

“These unmanned systems have to be integrated into our airspace,” he said. “The Tech Center could be poised to do that.”

Atlantic County’s Kyle also sees potential in developing private uses and technology for drones. With its ample open spaces, South Jersey is a good location for drone testing and research, he said.

The nearby Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Ocean County already offers restricted airspace in the Pine Barrens. And local colleges hold the promise of ample research partnerships, Kyle said.

“There will be aviation jobs — period. They will locate where there are good incentives to locate. And that’s where the challenge is — making it economically feasible,” he said.

Meanwhile, commercial airlines are most concerned about a projected shortage of pilots, said Tom Kirkwood, director of member companies for AviaNation, a national job-posting service for the aviation industry.

His service helps companies such as Spirit Airlines find qualified workers in New Jersey.

Five years ago, the FAA pushed back the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 to address the shortage.

“They’re afraid they won’t have enough pilots to fly the aircraft. If you talk to executives, they’re desperate for line maintenance technicians and mechanics,” he said. “Anyone going into flight maintenance is a shoo-in for work.”

Kirkwood said higher-paying foreign companies are poaching some American pilots, even if just for contracted periods as short as six months at a time.

“I wish they would let flight attendants do that,” said Kirkwood, who also works as an attendant.

Retiring pilots are leaving a jobs gap that will have to be filled over the next decade, he said.

“They’ve upped the minimum flight hours to qualify for retirement and pushed the retirement age back to 65 to give them a window to work with. But they’re still pushing it for pilots,” he said.

Becoming a commercial pilot requires lots of flight experience, one reason banner-plane companies in Atlantic and Cape May counties usually have little trouble finding pilots.

“It’s a real stepping-stone career,” Kirkwood said. “Private pilots work their way up with banner towing or flying canceled checks to the bank. Airlines all have minimums you have to meet to fly with them. It used to be 250 hours. Now it’s 500 or more.”

Those pursuing a career in aviation can look forward to a rewarding, if challenging, future, pilot Janis Keown-Blackburn said.

Keown-Blackburn, 65, of Belmar, Monmouth County, retired from Spirit Airlines this year after 35 years of commercial flying. She reached the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age.

“I absolutely loved what I did. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “When you wake up and it’s a pleasure to go to work, that’s so much easier than dragging yourself out of bed for something you dislike.”

Some jobs in aviation, such as aerospace engineers, flight attendants and air-traffic controllers, are projected to shrink in demand over the next decade, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Others, such as aircraft mechanics, are expected to see smaller-than-average growth.

Demand is growing here and internationally for qualified pilots, Keown-Blackburn said.

“Quite a few people have been going to places like China and the Middle East to fly, mainly because their starting salary runs $200,000,” she said. “You won’t be making that kind of money in the beginning. You don’t even make that much money at the end.”

While her gender has never presented a career obstacle, Keown-Blackburn said, commercial piloting was a male-dominated field. During her career, she made it a point to give copies of Women in Aviation Magazine to any girls she met who expressed an interest in flying.

“There weren’t many women pilots like there are today. I have never once been in an airline class with another woman,” she said. “It’s always with 20 other men. It’s always been like that, even when I was learning to fly.”

The industry has as little job security as other fields, she said.

“Spirit was airline No. 6 for me. The only other one still in business is Sun Country Airlines — and they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy,” she said.

“In the airline industry, there have always been strikes and furloughs. But today it seems no matter what business you’re in, you have to worry about your job,” she said. “You need to keep your resume up and ready. You need to constantly be paying attention to your company.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217