Western Colorado Community College is inviting new students to learn how to fly the friendly skies.

The college, which is connected to Colorado Mesa University, has partnered with SkyWest Airlines to create a career path for budding pilots through the airline company's Pilot Pathway Program.

The partnership will allow students to be mentored by SkyWest pilots, and, if they graduate, receive enhanced company seniority, guaranteed final first officer interviews for jobs and top seniority in ground school.

"SkyWest has a longtime presence in Grand Junction, which helped us turn their local presence into a new partnership," CMU President Tim Foster said. "SkyWest is a large company whose potential future investments in our students will be beneficial to their workforce and quality of our pilot program."

SkyWest has been flying in and out of Grand Junction through corporate partnerships with United Airlines, Delta Airlines and American Airlines for years. The airline also has partnerships with Alaska Airlines and the Canada-based Bombardier Aerospace.

There is a growing — and serious — shortage of highly qualified flight crew, including pilots. An Aviation Week article in October said that some experts were predicting a hiring demand of as many as 790,000 new pilots and 754,000 new maintenance technicians over the next two decades.

CMU spokesman David Ludlam said SkyWest predicts it will need to hire up to 100 new pilots a month for some time.

"That kind of gives you the sense of scale for this workforce shortage," Ludlam said. "We've already had this (pilot training) program, but being able to pair it with a company like SkyWest would help us to better understand what the shortfall is, and, from a technical standpoint, what they need in terms of training."

The community college already has an aviation technology education track, where students can earn two-year associate degrees in applied science. That program started in 2016 with just two students.

In that program, students can earn their Federal Aviation Administration certificates as private pilots, commercial pilots with an instrument rating and certified flight instructors. Graduates also can go on to other schools to earn bachelor's degrees in aviation science.

"As a division of CMU, WCCC shares in an entrepreneurial culture that exists on all CMU campuses," said Brigette Sundermann, Western Colorado Communinty College vice president of community college affairs. "We work at being nimble and responsive when it comes to filling workforce needs wherever we find them, on the ground or in the air."

Sundermann and Ludlam said the partnership will allow the college to expand its aviation program over the next several years. It now has nearly 16 students, four instructors and three planes.

To help build on the program, the CMU Foundation, the college pilot training program community advisory board and local donors plan to work together in that expansion, which will include raising money for scholarships. To learn more, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/wccc/programs/aviation.

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