RED OAK, Texas — When K’Lynn Smith was growing up, she loved building model airplanes.
Stealth fighters and Batman’s plane were some of the kits she put together.
These days she’s helping build one of the most sophisticated business jets in the sky.
Smith, 38, is one of 77 graduates of a unique apprenticeship program created by Bombardier in Red Oak, south of Dallas. Unlike some apprenticeship programs, applicants are not required to have college training or aerospace experience. They are interviewed and tested on spatial awareness and mechanical skills. After rigorous selection, they get free tuition for three months of classroom training at nearby Texas State Technical College (TSTC), all while being paid $12.50 an hour.
“They’re being paid a wage to come here (to TSTC) … essentially to be trained,” explained Marcus Balch, provost of TSTC in Red Oak. “These are life-changing opportunities.”
The classes contain both sexes and all ages - from people in their twenties all the way up to their sixties. After three months at TSTC, they spend another three months in on-the-job training inside the factory, where they are paid $15.50 an hour. Then, they spend 18 months of full-time work in the plant, after which they become accredited aircraft assemblers certified by the Department of Labor.
K’Lynn Smith spent 10 years assembling mattresses before she came to Bombardier, a job she eventually left. Then, she went to culinary school, before deciding working in a commercial kitchen didn’t suit her. When she came to Bombardier, she was named Apprentice of the Year.
At its 250,000-square-foot facility in Red Oak, Bombardier manufactures wings for the Global Express 7500. The wings of passenger jets are like functional sculpture, with subtle nuances in shape that can have profound effects on performance. The wings of the Global 7500 are special, even within that genre, because they flex smoothly in flight, making the plane more comfortable to ride in.
Despite their simple elegance, the wings are complex structures, containing thousands of parts, and they take thousands of hours to fabricate. Each one that leaves the factory is a matter of pride for Smith.
“It is a bit of accomplishment,” she described. “I did a job. I did a job well. I did a job that people are going to entrust their lives to.”
North Texas has been an aircraft manufacturing hub since World War II, with companies such as General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin), Bell and Vought residing here. Yet, it’s taken Bombardier, headquartered in Montreal, to create an incentivized apprentice program that generates a skilled workforce.
The company invested $1.2 million to start the program in 2019 and spends another $1.5 million each year in wages and materials to sustain it. Plant manager Tony Curry said it’s been worth the money. Since the program began, the number of hours it takes to make a wing has been cut by more than half. The morale of the 550 employees has improved.
“Some of the supervisors’ daughters are in the program. Some uncles, there are some of those,” Curry said. “We were encouraged to get local people and local kids in here.”
Thirty-five years ago, Curry himself was an apprentice at an aircraft factory in Belfast, Ireland. With his red hair, brogue, and subtle smile, Curry looks and sounds the part of the Irishman he is, as he tells his story.
“It was a place where there weren’t a lot of opportunities. We had 'the troubles' (the internal political conflict that battered Northern Ireland),” he explained. “I had tried college and university - wasn’t for me.”
He learned aircraft manufacturing from the rivets up as an apprentice, eventually got a Bachelors’ degree and an MBA. He’s been with Bombardier the whole while.
Now he runs Red Oak.
“I’m a great believer in giving people a chance.”