Tammera L Holmes is on a mission: To recruit as many students of color as possible to careers in aviation – and she believes in starting young.
“We actually start in kindergarten,” said Holmes, the CEO of Aerostar Avion Institute, a Chicago-based aviation, education and training organization.
Introducing kids to the industry is the first step of a four-pronged outreach strategy – which can mean everything from a visit to a local airport to flying flight simulators, mini-drones or remote-controlled helicopters – even a field trip to a manufacturing plant in Charleston, S.C. Exposure is followed by education, empowerment and, ultimately, employment.
It’s all an effort to prepare and train the next generation of pilots, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers and dozens of other jobs in aviation.
The push for a diverse pipeline, particularly female, minority, underprivileged and at-risk youth, is more than doing the right thing, explained Holmes. It’s about youth being prepared to move into a profession that will soon be hit by a wave of departures.
With a mandatory retirement age of 65, United Airlines will be looking to hire 10,000 new pilots during the next decade – “and many of those jobs in the aviation industry don’t require a college degree,” explained Holmes. She recently appeared with Marissa Warren of United Airlines and Ryan K. Priester, director of community programs for the Office of Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago on WVON’s America’s Heroes Group show, hosted by Cliff Kelley, where the trio fielded multiple phone calls from listeners about opportunities in the industry.
Holmes has always been intrigued by flight. But as an aviation management major at Southern Illinois University in the ‘90s, she saw only one other classmate who looked like her. Some years later, speaking at a career day at a south suburban high school, not a single student in the audience had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I literally started crying in front of the class,” she said. “I couldn't pass the buck to anyone. I knew had a responsibility to continue the legacy.”
So, in 2008, the then-28-year-old launched Aerostar to make sure African-Americans are well-represented in the work force. Through its partnership with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement and its Community Programs Accelerator, Boeing, and United, the program has, well, taken off.
Since its founding five years ago, the Community Programs Accelerator has served nearly 120 South Side nonprofits like AeroStar, giving them access to university resources to help them achieve their missions and deliver more impact in the neighborhoods they serve.
Aerostar came on board 2 years ago and the Accelerator helped the organization update and implement its strategic plan, develop its board of directors, facilitate its communications outreach, and develop program metrics to support its fundraising efforts.
Said Priester: “We know that more than 250,000 black people have left Chicago since 2000. A lot of this is driven by too few people qualifying for high skill jobs that pay high skill wages. And so we, as a university based on the South Side, are focused on how can we build back the black and brown workforce within the city. This partnership between AeroStar, United Airlines and the University is a great example of our approach. We have a community-based organization that's working with a corporate partner eager to source high paying, high skilled jobs. The resources of the University are being leveraged to help develop the capacity of the organization’s leader and to bring new partners to the table so that, together, we can develop a long-term solution that creates economic opportunity that benefits our city and its residents.
“As a global company, our focus is to try to make sure that we have a diverse pipeline and a diverse workforce because we serve a diverse client base and so that's very important to us. What Tammera is doing is actually solving for future problems that we're going to have once our pilots start to retire,” said Warren, corporate and community affairs associate at United Airlines.
Holmes emphasized that the interest is already there; that kids already love all things airborne – from kites to hot-air balloons. “What we’re now doing is putting them on a real pathway.”
By Bonnie Rubin