Kansas State Polytechnic students attend an Airport Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) lab at the Salina airport in the summer of 2015.

A relatively new degree program at Kansas State Polytechnic is filling a significant talent gap and launching competitive applicants into the workforce. The Airport Management degree program was founded on the principal of teaching evidence-based and real-world practices so graduates will enter the workforce with experiences on par with what they would gain from years of on-the-job experience.

The program was launched in the fall of 2016 with some of the courses being piloted since the summer of 2015. Already, these students have demonstrated a competitive advantage. A couple of students earned spots in highly competitive internship programs, last summer.

“What I am hearing is, for the students who have been exposed to this for the last two years, when they go to job interviews, they can talk more intelligently about the industry. I have even been told by some industry folks here in the state that they prefer our graduates,” said Harl.

The motivation to build this program comes from a variety of factors including changing technologies, a need to address evolving demographics in the talent pipeline, and an aging workforce that is already leaving holes that hiring managers are struggling to fill. Across the country, there are various aviation degrees that include some airport training, but those tend to offer spotty coverage of airport-specific topics. What Tara Harl, PhD, ATP, has developed at Kansas State Polytechnic is a fully fledged Airport Management degree with a curriculum developed in partnership with industry representatives. As Airport Management Program Director, Harl has built one of just eight pure Airport Management degree programs in the country.

“Our industry is screaming for more than just a degree. Employers want people with a certain skill set who actually know something when they get out,” said Harl.

The program strives for performance-based assessments, more than using traditional written tests. Harl pointed out that this is more work for the professors, but this style of evaluation is what the industry is moving toward.

“Other than taking tests for FAA licenses, our industry assesses you by how you work as a team,” said Harl. In future job interviews, graduates will face performance-based exercises. They are grouped into teams, given a problem in the morning and expected to present a solution in the afternoon. “Our program is designed to prepare students for what they are going to see when they go to interviews.”

The Kansas State Polytechnic program has a one-of-a-kind advantage: being situated on an active air field. This provides unique opportunities for students. For example, when there was resurfacing work being done on a taxiway, the students were offered a taxiway construction lab by the local airport administration and the construction firm. This kind of exposure to experts in the field is emblematic of the program, including access to the blue collar side of the industry; the people who keep airports running.

Most unique about this program, however, is its dedication to real-world experiences through embedded labs. The coursework for the first two years of the program is basically a business degree. The next two years provide a concentration of airport courses with the embedded labs. Each of the courses has five to seven, three-hour labs. For these, industry experts are brought in to present materials.

Harl pointed out that a wide variety of topics are covered.

“With so many labs—about nine airport classes times five or seven labs, you do the math—that shows you how many specialties our students are exposed to,” she said. For example, the Airport Planning course includes a lab on architecture offered by the firm that designed the new Wichita, Kansas terminal.

Students at Kansas State Polytechnic in the Airport Management degree program take an AUTO CAD-GIS Lab with Coffman & Associate in the fall of 2016

“Not that these students are going to be trained architects when they graduate but, it teaches them how to look at architectural drawings and how talk to architects,” said Harl.

The program tends not to emphasize the use of textbooks because textbooks get dated quickly. Instead, the instructors use active, industry documents from sources like the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).

When starting out to build the Airport Management degree program, Harl found that Kansas State Polytechnic was uniquely positioned for success. While the beginning of the program had started two years before she arrived, she was to be the first full-time director and given the freedom to revise and build as industry needed. Harl leveraged a terrific pool of industry adjuncts with input from employers.

To begin, she assembled an advisory council comprised of people from the aviation industry, who provided insight into what is needed. That group has now become a standing advisory council comprised of industry leaders across the U.S.

This degree program provides a model for successful programs across all transportation occupations with its clear focus on the career pathway and targeting of existing and emerging skills gaps. To contact Tara Harl with questions about launching this style of degree program or to schedule a presentation, email tlharl@ksu.edu.