The Twin Ports aviation cluster has reached a comfortable cruising altitude, but it isn't done climbing yet.
Local jobs in the industry have grown 39 percent in the past decade as anchors like Cirrus Aircraft and AAR Corp. continue to soar.
"We are the envy of the aerospace industry because of the quality of the work that gets done in our shop and the shops that supply us in this region," Bill King, director of business development at Cirrus, said at an event Wednesday. "We have got a workforce that is second to none."
A new report by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development says aviation puts $646 million in the regional economy and directly supports 3,451 jobs here. The last study on the sector, released in 2007, showed about 2,300 people working at aerospace firms.
Including indirect and induced jobs, aviation helps write more than 5,600 local paychecks today.
The report was touted at the Lake Superior College Center for Advanced Aviation on Wednesday as business leaders and city officials applauded the success of the many businesses that help people take flight.
"Economic developers like to use the term cluster, and aviation in our region is absolutely a textbook definition of a cluster," said Brian Hanson, CEO of business development group APEX. "It's not a one-trick pony in this community. It's manufacturing; it's maintenance; it's services; it's transportation; it's cargo."
Companies are recruiting far and wide to fill the need for talent - a day spent in Duluth isn't complete lately without seeing a now-hiring ad from Cirrus, AAR and others.
"We can easily hire 50 mechanics today," said AAR vice president Mark Ketterer, and Cirrus said hundreds of new employees are needed over the next few years.
Duluth has a low unemployment rate, leaving the labor pool limited, and those still looking for work might not have the skills needed to step right into an aviation career. Growing a local workforce, officials said, means building a culture around aviation and boosting early education.
"The Northern Aero Alliance has reached into high schools, into elementary schools, trying to introduce students to aviation at a very young age," said Lake Superior College President Patrick Johns. "We're working hard to get them into the pipeline ... and to reach out to people who have been employed in related industries."
The Duluth International Airport, home base to many aviation businesses, pushed for the DEED study to give an up-to-date look at how far the industry has come in just 10 years.
"This is a great start," said King at Cirrus as one of the company's new Vision jets rumbled outside the hangar he was speaking from. "We don't see this as having hit some kind of pinnacle. We see this as a path ... to even more significant production, even more products for the aerospace industry that we hope to build and supply our customers with."