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May 8, 2021

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International Air Academy welcomes new leader

Torch passes as school works to adapt to changing demands

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
2 Photos
Colleen Piller, retired president and CEO of the International Air and Hospitality Academy.
Colleen Piller, retired president and CEO of the International Air and Hospitality Academy. Contributed photo Photo Gallery

The International Air and Hospitality Academy in Vancouver changed its leadership last week as the school is adapting to declining demand for airline training and a surging interest in wind turbine instruction.

Retiring President and CEO Colleen Piller was replaced by DJ Schmidt, who earned his reputation as a leader in the manufacturing industry and also as a financial leader in Vancouver; he was recently the chief financial officer of Vancouver-based homebuilder Ginn Group.

Piller, 54, is leaving to take care of her daughter, but her extensive board work for Southwest Washington organizations will continue. She is on boards for the Salvation Army and the Northwest Career Colleges Federation, Associated Washington Businesses and the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.

Piller spent a long career at the International Air and Hospitality Academy after graduating from the airline program in 1987. She went on to work as a flight attendant for American Airlines before returning as an instructor in 1994. She worked under the leadership of founder Arch Miller, who died in January.

“I taught everything I experienced,” she said. “One of the most important things was to be able to write and change tickets. It was very manual back then. There was a lot of coding. You had to code numbers into the computer.”

She felt an urge to learn more about the business of the school, so she applied for the enrollment department, which many co-workers said would lead to failure.

“I took a chance and went in and interviewed,” she said. “Everyone told me I wouldn’t get it because they never hired instructors.”

To her surprise, she got the job, launching her into a series of leadership roles. She worked out of the International Air Academy’s Vancouver campus to recruit new students, but she also traveled alone to small towns in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming for her recruiting.

Eventually, she was asked to open a campus for the school in Kent, so she moved to Federal Way and became the new branch’s school director.

She moved back to Vancouver for a recruiting job, partly drawn by her husband, who worked in Vancouver, and her family that lived here. Her next steps were director of admissions and marketing, co-vice president of the campus and when Miller retired in 2016, she became president.

Some of the biggest changes during her leadership with Miller included diversifying the education offered by the school.

After 9/11 caused a dip in the airline industry, Piller and Miller thought that if another similar event were to happen, it would threaten the school.

As a solution, Piller, co-vice president at the time, helped start the culinary program, where students worked out of the Grant House Eatery. Next came the wind program, which trained students to repair and maintain wind turbines using a training climbing tower in the parking lot of the school. And finally, the school added the railroad program in 2013.

“Wind really took off immediately,” she said.

Another huge challenge, with 200 students, was adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Recently with COVID, with students on campus and living in student housing, myself and my team overnight switched to online, teaching virtually,” she said. “There are over 200 students on campus, so getting them online, getting them the equipment they needed and keeping them safe: that was one of the biggest accomplishments.”

Once the pandemic hit, the airline industry suffered far worse than during the post-9/11 slump, so the school’s investments into other programs paid off: The number of new classes for airline training was cut in half, and the number of classes for the wind turbine program doubled.

It was under those changes in the school that Schmidt took over as president and CEO. He was promoted from his role as the company’s contracted CFO.

Schmidt was born in Kansas City, Mo., and earned his accounting degree from Westminster College. He worked for one of the biggest accounting firms, KPMG, on its auditing department.

In 2011, he moved to Kalama to work for Steelscape, a national supplier of metallic-coated and pre-painted steel, as its vice president of finance. He was responsible for IT and purchasing, also.

He worked for the Ginn Group from 2015 to 2019, and then left and began contracting his accounting skills for the International Air and Hospitality Academy last year.

Schmidt, who’s been married for 11 years and has a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, said he was greatly attracted to the small, family-owned business aspect to the academy.

“I like that in America, we have this vibrant small-business ecosystem,” he said.

When he worked for his past jobs in manufacturing, he remembers seeing a gap in education options for workers who sought technical education like the academy offers.

“I had issues with finding qualified people,” he said. “I was working with the local community college to have blueprint reading classes. That whole re-tooling: I know how important it is.”

Schmidt said he’s seeking to improve the school’s educational offerings.

“The pivoting and changing of careers is going to be more prevalent as time goes on,” he said. “Having these career training tools is going to be vital for individuals and businesses.”

He’s also seeking to digitize some of the school’s processes and make stronger connections with potential employers, especially in the wind turbine industry, which has a huge demand for workers right now, he said.

“I see it as one of the fastest-growing industries,” he said.

Some of the educational programs he wants to add are manufacturing and data, cybersecurity or coding, but they are just in the idea stage, he said.

“Those are things we talk about when we sit around and have a cup of coffee,” he said. “We want to see more programs.”