Iberia has seized on a change in training laws in Spain to offer a new vocational aircraft and aero-engine maintenance degree, starting in October.
While vocational courses attract strong interest in Northern Europe, Spain is heavily biased toward academic education. In the past, Spanish vocational courses typically allowed only three months of industry experience after 18 months of theoretical studies.
However, high youth unemployment prompted the Spanish government to rethink the vocational training rules in 2012, and the Madrid region has been quick to act. Iberia’s apprentice program manager Alexander Schlag says the new vocational training law is “written beautifully, with a lot of flexibility,” allowing the school or the company to take the lead and work together to develop their own programs.
This change allowed Iberia to team up with the Madrid regional government and two secondary schools to offer a new advanced vocational training degree in aeromechanical maintenance, which is 40% academic and 60% workplace-based.
“Our chief technical officer, Andre Wall, comes from a German/Swiss background, where the dual [academic and employer] system is a very big thing,” Schlag says. “Andre took the initiative a year ago, and now it has started to take shape.”
Iberia is recruiting 50 maintenance trainees for the October 2017 class, divided evenly between two secondary schools in Madrid. After an initial year of lab- and workshop-focused academic studies, the students will transfer to Iberia’s La Munoza maintenance facilities.
“Vocational training is gaining more traction and becoming fashionable with large companies, like [car manufacturer] Seat and national train operator Renfe. But the commitment that Iberia has made, to take 50 students, is quite substantial. Others go for five students; we have gone for 50,” Schlag says.
Applications for the 2017 academic year closed on July 4, and the course was oversubscribed. Students are not paid in their first year at school but earn €300 ($344) per month as second-year students, increasing to €700 per month in the third year.
In the Madrid region, the vocational training programs last a maximum of two years, which means trainees fall short of the hours needed for their European Aviation Safety Agency B1 and B2 licenses. “The two-year limit is a bit of an obstacle,” Schlag admits.
Iberia is offering a third year so students can finish their license theory work in addition to their advanced technician qualification from the first two years. “Young people want to start building their experience early, so they can be eligible for their license as soon as possible. From that point of view, it makes sense to be inside a company, rather than a school, which is not an operating airline.”
However, the training is not a job guarantee. “This is purely an educational endeavor,” Schlag says. “We are giving them a vocational certificate, license training and workplace experience. At the moment, we can’t give any promises or guarantees.”
That extra reassurance may not be needed, given the shortage of skilled, experienced and licensed technicians. Iberia recently recruited 100 line-maintenance engineers in Barcelona, but it was not easy to do. “This is a big motivation to combine vocational and license training,” he says.
An extra benefit is that the airline can shape its trainee engineers. “They are a blank sheet. When they start, it is their first exposure to the industry. When they come from other places, they may have a different style that has to fit into the organization.”
Given the lead time, the first of the new trainees will not join the airline until October 2018. However, Iberia already takes around 40 of the old-style vocational interns each year. “The quick decision to start already, in 2017, is because we have history here. We are not building on a vacuum,” he says.
This year, the airline decided to retain 20 of the old-system interns and put them through the equivalent of the new third year between July 2017 and June 2018. Iberia will continue taking 40 such interns per year, in addition to the 50 new vocational degree trainees.
Iberia has an annual contract with the regional government and the two schools for the new course and is already planning its inductions for 2017, 2018 and 2019. “In practical terms, our commitment will go beyond the year,” Schlag says.
Even though the students will not be on-site, Iberia plans to stay in close contact with them during their first year. This is important for developing English language skills, because the third year is taught exclusively in English.
The airline is also training mentors and guides for the new trainees; 25 staff members have already completed the week-long course, and another 25 are scheduled to take it in September.
The Changing Face OF Maintenance Training
“We train people for the future, but we test them according to the past,” Iberia’s apprentice program manager Alexander Schlag says.
“The licensing and testing requirements are so contrary to the working world. Sitting in solitude, not being allowed supporting materials shows a disconnect. The world is not about regurgitating facts. We work in a world of collaborative work, using resources,” says Schlag.
With increasing automation and use of technology, maintenance trainees need to learn how to work together, think analytically and discuss their solutions, he explains.
“We can’t train mechanics anymore—routine jobs will be taken over by robots. Nowadays, we need problem-solvers, communicators and leaders. We facilitate learning, but ultimately students have authority over their own learning,” he notes.
Iberia focuses on language skills, encouraging students to discuss and present in English to build up their confidence, as well as reflective learning, a process in which they work out how they learn best.