For airlines, it could be argued that their lifeblood is the cadre of technicians that keeps their airplanes flying. Unfortunately, that supply has been chronically anemic in recent years, and could worsen as thousands of new jetliners come on stream.
To maintain those aircraft, the demand for qualified technicians will remain strong, according to Boeing’s market outlook for 2016-35. The highly referenced document projects a global requirement for 679,000 aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) through 2035. The Asia-Pacific region, needing 268,000, will be the largest market for skilled technicians, with North America in second place at 127,000.
The problem is that all skill sets are in short supply, according to Kip Blakely, vice president of customer and government relations at HAECO Americas in Greensboro, North Carolina. “The shortage is even more critical with those who qualify as inspectors and quality-control technicians, because it takes many years to get the experience and certifications,” he explains. “During that period, people drop out.”
Along this line, Blakely notes, the aviation industry loses about one-third of airframe and powerplant (A&P) -licensed technicians to other industries. “Over the past 5-10 years, this has gotten significantly worse, because those with A&P licenses have specific skills that are poached by other industries,” he says. “More recently, the oil and gas industry has been the hottest, but amusement parks and railroads have also ranked very high.”
The situation becomes even more urgent given the skillsets needed to work with the huge data streams generated by today’s sophisticated avionics, as well as the latest composite structural materials increasingly replacing sheet metal. Fortunately, airlines and MROs are becoming more proactive with addressing the problem.
“There’s an emerging consensus that there is a critical shortage of qualified technicians, and the need to raise awareness among young people who are looking for technical careers that the airline industry offers opportunities,” says Bob Ireland, Airlines For America (A4A) managing director of engineering and maintenance. “To do that, programs must be established that will target the K-12 grades—even if there may not be an immediate payback.”
Ireland says that over the next 5-10 years, qualified technicians in composites and high-tech avionics will be most in demand. “Yet we are finding that in those two areas, especially, the airlines have to do additional training when hiring from the A&P schools, because of those airlines’ unique processes and equipment configurations,” he explains.
Data analysis and management skills have becoming increasingly important for MRO technicians. Credit: Pratt & Whitney
Mike McDaniel, ExpressJet Airlines’ general manager of aircraft maintenance training, echoes this stance. He adds that “the overall quality of [AMT] applicants” is not as good as it was 20-25 years ago.
“We test our applicants on repair- work capability, regulatory knowledge and soft skills, which relate to how well they will fit into the work environment,” McDaniel says. “About one-third fail, while another third are marginal. If I had a 90% pass rate, then the quantity [of available technicians] issue would be a lot more manageable.”
ExpressJet flies a mixed fleet of more than 200 Bombardier and Embraer regional jets. Consequently, McDaniel reports that troubleshooting a computerized aircraft is an essential—albeit not easily available—skillset for its operations. He blames FAA FAR Part 147—the regulations governing the training curriculum and certification of aircraft maintenance technicians—at least in part for the shortage. “Under FAR Part 147, the schools have very limited opportunities—timewise—to devote to digital aircraft troubleshooting and repair, and very little wiggle room to make that leap,” he points out.
Modernizing the MRO Curriculum
In fact, Part 147 regulations still mandate instruction on dope and fabric-based structural repairs, though some changes may be forthcoming, according to Chuck Horning, chair of the Aviation Maintenance and Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“If the proposals that the industry has made for Part 147 are adopted, there will be a realignment of hours devoted to the three basic building blocks of aviation maintenance training—general overview, airframe and powerplant,” Horning says. “It has been proposed that some of the hours devoted to the three building blocks be shifted to advanced avionics and composites training.” Those proposals could be part of the long-anticipated revisions to Part 147 scheduled for release this year.
Phil Miholovich, director of maintenance for C&L Aviation Services, a Bangor, Maine-based MRO provider, says that students are “typically given no more than just a general overall knowledge” of composite structures and advanced avionics troubleshooting, with very little in the way of stand-alone courses specifically focusing on those areas.
“This is changing, because some Part 147 schools are adding programs in complex avionics,” he says. “But it is fairly new, and it adds six to 12 months to the curriculum. Because of the time and money involved, not everyone participates.”
According to Kevin Kirkpatrick, Pratt & Whitney’s executive director of aftermarket operations for Asia, today’s MRO technicians “need to be comfortable with data, and they need to change as technology transforms.” He adds: “At the same time, they have to know how to handle the data coming at them, and how to utilize it.”
Boeing predicts the world will need 679,000 new MRO technicians over the next 20 years.
While he acknowledges that “it’s always a challenge to get good people,” the company has not had a significant problem finding qualified technicians, Kirkpatrick says. “We can get those we need,” he stresses. “Our long-standing presence in the region—along with local educational institutions—allows us to anticipate future human capital needs and plan to meet these through a variety of initiatives.”
More specifically, Kirkpatrick cites the establishment of apprentice programs, internships, and partnerships with universities in Singapore that “assure a supply of technicians who are capable of working with the latest technologies” with which the engine MRO works. At the same time, he predicts, there will be growing competition, particularly for those with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) background. “Aviation is very technology-intensive. As other industries catch up, there will be greater competition for STEM talent,” he says.
Embry-Riddle’s Horning reports that internships, especially, are viewed as a viable way to address the technician shortage. “Over the past 2-3 years, my department has been approached by MRO companies to help them set up some type of internship program,” he says. “Five years ago, this was very rare, but now it’s increasing every year.”
He cites as a motivating factor the opportunity it provides for employers to “find out where to look to hire the people they need” and to have a “preview” of potential employees. “There are a lot of jobs available in this field right now, and the companies want to get the best employees they can. Internships are one way to do this,” Horning notes.
Apprentice programs are also gaining in popularity as a way to address the technician shortfall. For example, C&L Aviation Services initiated a three-year program two years ago to “find local people with mechanical aptitude, who would be interested in learning to be aircraft maintenance technicians,” according to the company’s director of maintenance, Phil Miholovic. “Because we designed the program with a focus on the services we offer, the students will know the systems and aircraft we work on—mainly regional airliners and some business jets.” He points out that developing a core group of technicians who have successfully completed the program will allow the company to recruit that many more.
Another proponent of apprenticeship programs is Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which offers its aircraft maintenance technician apprentice program to its own employees, such as ramp workers, who want to become mechanics. As Todd Bartz, the carrier’s senior recruiter for technical operations, notes, since 2000, when the program was established, there has been such strong interest from internal candidates that the airline has not sought candidates from outside the company. However, it is now looking at ways to expand its reach.
Bartz reports that Southwest is also seeking other ways to recruit qualified technicians. “For example, we are researching how we connect with college and technical school graduates, as well as high school students,” he says. “Right now, we are introducing those students to the aviation industry—not just to Southwest Airlines—through our summer camp and Aviation Days where they can learn about various jobs and departments, as well as the skills needed to reach their goals. If we can get the students, and their parents, to understand the opportunities available, they can decide on the best path for them.”
Notable & Quotable
“As an industry, we can no longer simply function as an advisory board to the schools, making them solely responsible for turning out a finished product. We need to connect with the students, earlier, from the time they begin their training.”
General Manager, Aircraft Maintenance Training, ExpressJet Airlines