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Roswell prepares to host student aviation event

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“We are trying to be an economic development engine and really what that turns into is an educational engine,” says Brian Cook, left, president of the New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association and an aerospace software company owner. He and board member Bill Shuert said their nonprofit is transitioning to the New Mexico Aerospace Education Association. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The city of Roswell plans to host a major aviation event for students this fall, with thousands of youth expected to attend and many different organizations and businesses in the city anticipated as participants.

The leaders of the New Mexico Aviation Aeronautics Association call their science, technology, engineering and math educational event “the largest aviation STEM expo for middle school and high school students” in the nation.

“We are going to bring in students here from around the state, not just Roswell,” said association board member Bill Shuert about the Seventh Annual New Mexico Aviation Aerospace STEM Expo scheduled to occur Sept. 26 at the Roswell International Air Center.

He said that last year’s event in Alamogordo was attended by 3,000 students and their chaperones and had 54 exhibits and 32 aircraft. It had been held in Alamogordo for three years and Albuquerque for three years.

The purpose, he said, is to encourage young people to pursue careers in aviation-related fields. While New Mexico can offer good locations, good weather and other attractive features, the state must increase its trained workforce for the industry to grow here, said Shuert, who also operates an aviation business.

“Right now, aviation and aerospace have a huge demand,” he said. “Right now the industry is fighting each other, stealing people from each other.”

He said a large demand for pilots exists now, as a significant percentage of trained aviators near retirement age and commercial aviation actively recruits pilots away from the military. (According to a July 2018 Boeing Corp. job forecast presented at a national conference, the commercial aviation industry alone expects to need 790,000 pilots during the next 20 years.) Shuert estimated that the number of aviation mechanics and technicians needed is at least triple the number of jobs that will be available for pilots.

The training need is considered so critical that the association is in the process of changing its name and focus to indicate that STEM education is its prime focus, said Shuert and current president Brian Cook.

They mentioned two examples where large corporations either chose other states to operate in or closed after a few years in New Mexico because they did not think the workforce existed here to support their operations.

The exposition is expected to involve the city, local businesses, chambers of commerce, New Mexico Military Institute, the New Mexico Youth Challenge Academy, Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, area school districts and private schools, and charter and home school students. Exhibitors will include businesses involved in aviation or aerospace fields, universities with aviation programs, military units and law enforcement and security units that utilize aircraft or drones.

The nonprofit association, which does not receive state funding, is seeking $10,000 of the $40,000 budget from the city of Roswell, Shuert said, with a significant amount expected to be used to pay for student transportation. In future years, the city itself could organize the event, he said.

Shuert said the event is not just a field trip, but an educational experience.

“It is not an air show. It is not an open house. It is invite only,” he said. “We make sure they (the students) go by every exhibit. We make sure they are getting valuable information out of our event.”

A pre-event luncheon with organizers is scheduled for April 17 at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell.