The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, long a leading job generator in East County, partnered with business professionals across the region to develop the free program due to the need for the highly trained workers.
In the San Diego region, drone operators typically earn between $30-$70 per hour.
A similar drone program supported by the U.S. Department of Labor ended after the 2021 fall semester as temporary grant funding ceased. The district’s governing board voted in March to expand the program for fall of 2022.
Javier Ayala, Grossmont’s Dean of Careers and Workforce Development, said the drone operations program has trained more than 200 people for jobs in the regional economy.
“A big part of our vision is really getting people trained for the workforce,” he said.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are utilized in numerous industries. Operators control the technology from the ground in search and rescue; military missions and police surveillance; Hollywood cinematography; inspections of buildings, power lines, and windmills; studies of the natural environment, and much more.
District officials note that private instruction and certification from the Federal Aviation Administration can cost up to $10,000. The free Grossmont program includes 105 hours of flight instruction and 75 hours of additional training on one of two tracks, cinematography or surveying and mapping.
Students are expected to pay for their pilot’s license exam with the FAA, which costs $175, before moving on to one of the two tracks. First-time pass rates on the FAA exam for Grossmont students have ranged from 86% to 91%.
Skip Fredricks, who owns Hollywood Drones in Palm Springs and has taught at Grossmont, said many operators today get their training from YouTube or TikTok. This is inadequate, he explained, and the training offered at the college sets students apart.
“The skills they’ve come out with have allowed me to employ them right away in various productions and projects,” Fredricks said.
Fredricks has recommended students for jobs at a variety of companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, NBC, the Chula Vista Police Department, the California Department of Corrections and several telecommunications companies.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to see this drone program come to fruition at the college,” said the district’s Chancellor Lynn Neault. “There’s a tremendous demand, and I really look forward to watching it grow over the next few years.”
Under the drone operations program supported by the U.S. Department of Labor, 267 students received training. Of those, 90% were veterans – a priority group under the grant.
All the former students have gone on to employment at companies such as Birds Eye Aerial Drones in Santee, Hitec Commercial Solutions in San Diego, Hollywood Drones and Planck Aerosystems in San Diego.
Once students complete the flight school and specialized tracks, they can transition into for-credit programs. These programs include cybersecurity, information technology, programming, data science and programmable logic controllers.
Fall registration opens June 27.