For air traffic control student Diogenes Gama, hearing the news about the new Federal Aviation Administration hiring policy that went into effect Feb. 10 was a shock.
The new FAA "off the street" hiring policy will no longer give any preference to students who graduate from FAA Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) programs like the one offered at CCBC Catonsville, said Doug Williams, director of the aviation program at CCBC Catonsville.
Gama, 20, had moved to Catonsville from New Rochelle, N.Y., to attend the program at CCBC Catonsville. The program is the only one of its kind in Maryland and one of only 36 across the country.
"It's a hurdle that defeats the purpose of education," said Gama, who was born in Brazil and whose his parents taught him that education was the key to financial stability.
He said the new hiring policy devalues his education.
About 120 students a year graduate from the CTI program at CCBC Catonsville, which was FAA-approved in 2007.
Many joined the program because they thought it was the best way to land a job as an air traffic controller with the FAA, which promises a median salary of $122,530 per year, according to May 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to an FAA statement, "Completing course work in a CTI program does not guarantee employment with the FAA. However, the agency considers education and aviation experience in the hiring process."
The CCBC Catonsville website also states that graduating from the CTI program doesn't guarantee employment.
Still, students from all over the mid-Atlantic region come to the area to attend the two-year program and earn an associate of applied science degree in air traffic control.
Out-of-state students pay approximately $20,000 to complete the program, while students who live in Maryland pay about $13,000, according to CCBC Catonsville's posted tuition and fees for 2014.
Since 1997, the majority of air traffic controllers hired by the FAA have been from CTI-approved colleges and programs, according to he CCBC Catonsville website.
The FAA plans to hire more than 10,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade in order to replace controllers who will be retiring, the FAA's website said. The minimum requirements for hiring are a bachelor's degree, three years of progressively responsible work experience or a combination of three years post-secondary education and work experience.
Students are not the only ones unhappy about the new policy.
"They literally sprung this on us at 4 a.m. on New Year's Eve," said Joe Eichelberger, air traffic control program coordinator at CCBC Catonsville. "It was definitely a calculated move to make sure we couldn't raise a ruckus over it."
Williams said the new hiring policy isn't cost effective because the FAA will have to pay for students to go through training.
"It's not the right way to be training air traffic controllers. It's going to be very expensive to train them off the street," Williams said.
"Obviously, somebody that works at McDonald's for three years is not going to have the same level of proficiency as someone who's working in these state-of-the-art simulators, getting instruction here and investing in training," Williams said.
Eichelberger said new technology in the career field is constantly evolving and CTI programs provide students with the training they need to be successful air traffic controllers.
Moranda Reilly, 29, is a former president of the aviation club at CCBC Catonsville. She graduated from the program in December. Reilly, who resides in Ellicott City, said she worked hard to be at the top of her class, but that effort will go unnoticed now that CTI program graduates don't get a preference over those without aviation training.
Reilly said she joined the program after growing tired of working in marketing. She was always interested in planes and thought becoming an air traffic controller might be her calling.
But now the possibility of becoming an air traffic controller is more uncertain, Reilly said.
"They had the hiring freeze going on. Now all of a sudden they're advertising positions all over the Internet," Reilly said.
Reilly said students and graduates of CTI programs are uniting across the country to protest the new policy.
While students are upset about the new policy and would like to see the FAA give preference to those who graduate from CTI programs, they still hope to land a position as an air traffic controller with the FAA.
"I want to stay in aviation because I really do like aviation. I want to become an air traffic controller," Reilly said.