Kenneth Witcher, dean of the college of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, predicts the maintenance workforce of the future will have fewer but much better trained employees for each aircraft supported. He believes technology, in design of aircraft and engines, in troubleshooting, scheduling and performing maintenance and in training maintenance workers, will permit a smaller ratio of techs per aircraft-year. But these future techs will have to be able to handle all the new tools and systems.
Witcher is hearing from Embry-Riddle’s industry advisory board about a major shortfall in aviation techs by 2030, given the average age of 51 years for today’s technicians. The possible shortfall is global, not confined to the U.S. or any region. And he is seeing signs that the shortfall is approaching even now, as firms say they have difficulty finding people with the right skills, certifications and even aptitudes for maintenance work. He cites estimates that, even if every maintenance training school were filled to capacity, it would not be enough to close the gap, at least at the current ratio of mechanics per aircraft.
The good news is that maintaining that ratio will not be necessary. New aircraft and engines are designed to need less maintenance. Big data and new analytic tools can shift inefficient unscheduled maintenance to more efficient scheduled work, which requires fewer man-hours per repair. Better scheduling systems and better diagnostics should also reduce the MRO burden per aircraft.
Witcher says augmented reality tools are already being used in training technicians. He believes they will be used in operations as well. “The maintenance worker will put on a set of glasses, which will display all the technical data and torque sequences,” leading to much greater efficiency.
The Embry-Riddle Dean is seeing signs that both the maintenance industry and potential maintenance workers understand the leaner but more demanding future or aircraft maintenance. Embry-Riddle’s Bachelor of Science degree in maintenance, which at 120 credit hours goes way beyond the core courses needed for certification, has doubled its enrollment from 800 to nearly 1,600 students in six years. Witcher says the university did not plan or seek the rapid increase, it just happened due to the demands of students. Now the university has launched a master’s degree focused not on management, but on the technical side or maintenance. The program immediately attracted 60 candidates.
“The industry is changing its expectations, it wants more formal education,” Witcher says. “Twenty-five years ago, technicians just had to be able to read a technical order and turn a wrench and know some basic theory. Now technicians are managing systems and interpreting diagnostics.”