Woods grad soars with success

September 12th, 2011 | SMWC

There is a leader soaring in all of us, even if it takes years to emerge. For Mike Gehrich, he didn’t know he was meant to be a leader until he became one.

“In the beginning, I just wanted to turn wrenches,” said Gehrich, director of aviation at Vincennes University (VU) and 2011 graduate of Saint Mary-of the-Woods College’s (SMWC) Master of Leadership Development program.

His path from aviation technology to leadership development was a bit uncharted and definitely uncommon. As a mechanic, Gehrich maneuvered within an engine as smoothly as a sailor on calm seas. As a leader, however, he felt a little rough around the edges. With ingenuity, insight and a graduate degree, Gehrich’s career and the future of VU’s aviation program are reaching new heights.

Even with a decade of management experience, Gehrich still looked at the world mostly with a technician’s eye. “In mechanics, I am a perfectionist. I know the what and how for mechanics, but leadership is more flexible,” he said. Gehrich knew he needed to boost his leadership and interpersonal skills to guide VU through the evolving world of aviation education.

“I needed to learn how to read situations better,” he said. “I needed the skills to better understand how to bring a group of people with different skills and priorities onto the same page.”

Hired by Vincennes University in 1993 as an aviation teacher, Gehrich began ascending the chain of command when he was asked to chair the department. “That’s really when my supervisor and management role kicked in,” he said. “A couple of years later they gave me responsibility for the flight program. I realized I needed more skills to become a better leader and manager.”

That’s when Gehrich found SMWC’s MLD program. “I was engaged the entire time,” he began. “I couldn’t turn my papers in fast enough, which was quite a surprise to me because I never really viewed myself as a smart guy.” MLD’s specialized focus on leadership was exactly what Gehrich wanted. “I didn’t want an MBA,” he said. “Everyone and their brother have an MBA. MLD is unique. I like to be a little different, I guess.”

Having struggled with dyslexia all his life, he was nervous about pursuing a graduate degree. “I made it through Purdue for my undergrad but it wasn’t an easy ride,” said Gehrich, who struggled mostly with reading comprehension. “I can’t remember what I’ve read almost immediately after I read it.” By taking special adult courses, stock piling handy tricks and learning in SMWC’s close-knit community, Gehrich found no roadblocks on his path to a master’s degree. “MLD is special,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone. It’s almost like a family.”

Family has been a large motivator for Gehrich’s success. After he finished his two-year degree at VU, his father gently pushed for Gehrich to complete his bachelor’s degree at Purdue. “I’m really happy I took his advice,” he said. “My bachelor’s degree separated me from the rest of the mechanics.” Once he became a teacher, his wife’s support propelled his career up the chain of command. “It was her encouragement that convinced me that I was smart enough to be a teacher and then eventually a department chair and ultimately a program director,” he said.

Armed with his specialized skill set and, now, a master’s degree in leadership, Gehrich’s career is taking off. And his timing couldn’t be more perfect. Aviation is on the verge of some exciting times and VU is on the front lines. “Thirty percent of the aviation workforce is getting ready to retire,” he said. ““There are going to be some great opportunities for young people in aviation in the coming years. In the end, aviation will always be a tough industry, one that you have to love and appreciate in order to find success.”

To say aviation training is demanding would be an understatement. “Everything in this industry is about safety. From a pilot to a mechanic to an air traffic controller, there is safety. That requires education,” Gehrich said. Accountability is also key. Every time a mechanic works on an aircraft, they must refer to a manual. They are also required to log in every detail about the project. Even something as simple as filling a tire with air must be extensively documented. The training is rigorous, dangerous and limitless.

“There are no parking spaces in the sky,” he said. “We have to do things right the first time and every time. Technician students are in class six hours a day, five days a week just for the aviation classes.” In order to become a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified technician, they must pass 3 FAA computer exams, as well as oral and practical exams. The students will spend four days working one-on-one with an FAA designated mechanic examiner, who will observe them conducting maintenance and repairs. “I am one of 250 people in the entire world qualified by the FAA to administer these exams,” Gehrich said. “I am very proud of my designation and take my responsibilities very seriously.”   

With his new leadership identity, he led his program to a 46 percent enrollment increase. He knows the success of the aviation industry relies heavily on the success of programs like his. In its new Indianapolis location, the program has really begun to flourish. 

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