Many MRO shops and departments face challenges in replacing or adding to their workforce. A panel at the U.S. Aeronautical Repair Station Association in mid-March indicated that several techniques may be useful in meeting that challenge: higher pay, wider learning opportunities for career development, and help with the early, expensive steps in certification.
The ARSA panel looked at the recruiting challenge from the points of view of a student mechanic, a mid-career mechanic and an educator who works with student mechanics.
Mohammed Muneer is one the very best student aviation maintenance technicians at the University of the District of Community College (UDCC). Muneer came to the U.S. in 1999, finished high school and eventually got an engineering degree at Virginia Tech.
Muneer wanted to get into aviation repair and first sought on-the-job training, but found even a local regional airport wanted candidates who had completed their coursework. He next checked out a private school, found it too expensive, and then chose the more reasonably-priced UDCCC.
Muneer finishes his 21-month course in May and then must pay about $2,000 to take written, oral and practical tests for his FAA certification. He is less concerned with immediate salary, but will seek a company that reflects his values and will help him grow into a career.
William Russo, the aviation program director at UDCCC, says his school serves many students from disadvantaged families and can help them earn much more than their parents ever did. But after paying for UDCCC’s tuition, some students have a tough time coming up with more money to pay for FAA certification. That is one reason 60% of AMT MROs might offer to pay for the test and moving expenses to attract new mechanics.
UDCCC works with its graduates to find jobs and helps them with resumes. But the only companies that actively recruit at the college are major airlines, which can offer $65,000 to $68,000 a year to start and the prospect of $100,000 a year in five years.
In 2016, U.S. airline mechanics--majors, low-cost carriers and regionals--averaged $71,250 in wages, excluding benefits, versus $54,220 for MRO mechanics. That difference can look very attractive to a newly certified mechanic, but it comes at a price. Airline jobs are often at expensive hubs, like San Francisco, where good pay does not buy much housing. And airline jobs are usually repetitive, requiring the same tasks on the same aircraft, not much of an opportunity to learn and advance in a maintenance career, says Russo.
Elvis Sakonjic, now an airframe and powerplant lead at HACEO Americas, grew up in Bosnia during its civil war and was attracted to aircraft and mechanical work as a youth. In the U.S., he received financial aid to attend an aviation
maintenance school, and then he got his first job with TIMCO in 2003. Sakonjic jokes that he “did not want a job with a suit that did nothing.”
After two years with TIMCO, the young mechanic felt he was not being paid enough for his level of effort and quality of work, so he moved to another MRO that paid better. That facility went out of business after several years, so he returned to his old employer, which is now HAECO.
Sakonjic now leads a team of eight mechanics. To keep them motivated and aware of the importance of their work, he sometimes uses Flight Tracker to show where their overhauled aircraft are flying. The HAECO manager says his superiors tend to come down hard on errors and tardy work, but do not recognize good work sufficiently.
Nevertheless, Sakonjic is comfortable in his job, enjoys troubleshooting and likes the varied experience he gets at an independent MRO. He sees too many mechanics who come from airline jobs who aren’t versatile in multiple maintenance skills.
The student Muneer has similar views. “I’m an engineer, I like to learn a lot, money is not very important right now, I only need enough to survive. I don’t want to learn bad habits. I want to learn how to do it right.”
A mechanic in the ARSA audience endorsed this view. She said young mechanics should do heavy checks before they work in line maintenance. “You don’t learn anything on the line.”
MROs can’t compete with airlines on money, but, apart from the learning opportunity, they do offer more days off. And one ARSA attendee said some small shops are thinking of joining together so they can offer better benefits, such as health insurance, than they can offer individually.