United in Pursuit of Biomed

MarcheseIt’s been said that one person’s misfortune is often another’s opportunity. A recent turn of events in Indianapolis, however, suggests that one industry’s stroke of bad luck could translate into another’s lucky break. And this time, at least, it’s the biomed profession that would end up sitting pretty.

The situation involves Air Project, a federal retraining program for airline mechanics who were laid off when their employers’ fortunes took a nosedive following the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. A second player in this scenario is the United Airlines maintenance hub in Indianapolis, which, at its peak, employed approximately 3,000 mechanics and support staff. Since filing for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection on Dec. 9, 2002, United has laid off hundreds of those mechanics and placed others on temporary leave. It’s the laid-off mechanics who are eligible for Air Project funds — and it’s those mechanics Barbara Christe is luring to Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) — the third party to this account.

An associate professor and director of the Biomedical Technology associate degree program in the Department of Electrical Engineering Technology, Purdue School of Engineering and Technology, IUPUI, Christe says some airline mechanics are finding their way into her office in their search for a new career. The inquiries are mixed: Some are realistic and understand their work on turbines won’t qualify them for instant biomed status, but others are “in denial,” as Christe puts it, insisting that their experience should count – and position them at the top of the biomed salary scale, to boot.

“My perception – and I only see a percentage – is that half have a college degree in aeronautical maintenance; the other half have no college work at all, and they’ve hit upon healthcare as their hope for stability,” says Christe. “Air Project requires that you have a degree in two years, and it will pay a dollar figure. How many technology degrees can help you earn a relatively decent salary in two years? Not that many. So biomed is really attractive to them.”

Christe says 15 former mechanics are enrolled in the IUPUI program. That’s a good thing. At the same time, she points out, Indianapolis can support only so many BMETs. And none of the Air Project students is interested in relocating. That is not a good thing.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she exclaims. “My only fear is that it will be difficult for me to ensure them employment in Indianapolis. If we get 30, 40, I can’t promise that.”

An excess of degreed BMETs with no place to go? Is that clinical engineering’s version of: “Be careful what you wish for; you may get it”?

Nonetheless, IUPUI is seizing the opportunity and forging ahead with incentives to entice eligible airline mechanics to retool for careers in biomed. To supplement Air Project educational funds, for example, the university offers scholarships covering up to 25 percent of tuition per semester for full-time students. And Christe is moving ahead with placement plans.

“My plan is, even with the 15 or so I have at this point, to bring in Premier and others to make sales pitches,” says the former clinical engineer. “I get calls all the time from people outside of Indianapolis. Students may be of the mindset that they don’t want to move, and then Philips makes them an offer, and they’re outta here. So I try to encourage them to wait until graduation to see what gets offered. Some of them find out there’s a great big world out there.”

When talk turns to the topic of BMET recruitment strategies – and it always does – IUPUI’s cooperative efforts with Air Project stand as an example of a nontraditional approach to bolstering the biomed profession. As for the former airline mechanics who are preparing themselves for liftoff to a new career … well, if they persevere, it’s likely their new profession will take them farther, and further, than the friendly skies ever did.

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Marie S. Marchese
Editor, 24×7