Robert Barone (right) with participants at JetBlue's JFK hangar Lindsay Bjerregaard/AW&ST
Robert Barone (right) with participants in the JetBlue apprenticeship program at the airline’s JFK hangar.

Courting The Next Generation Of MRO Workers

With many airlines and MROs already seeing workforce shortages, the industry looks to stimulate interest with K-12 students.

Printed headline: Training Day

As the impending shortage of aviation maintenance technicians (AMT) looms, a staggering 82% of respondents in ARSA’s 2017 member survey reported difficulty finding qualified technical workers. According to The Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), an estimated 11,000 technical position vacancies at U.S. repair stations has translated to $2 billion in lost revenue annually. The issue will become even more critical over the next decade as an aging workforce starts retiring.

Brett Levanto, ARSA’s vice president for communications, says the problem is more complicated than just funneling brand-new workers in to replace retiring technicians. Levanto says the overlooked problem is the time it takes to turn new hires into productive technicians, with survey respondents reporting that 9-14 months of development is required for new technicians to become productive and profitable. “We’re so worried about getting them in the door, but really, the work is just starting, and you’ve got a lot of time left before they’re actually productive technicians,” says Levanto.

Brian Yount, a line maintenance manager for FedEx, echoes these sentiments: “At this point, we’re losing so many of our AMTs that it isn’t necessarily an issue of getting AMTs; it’s an issue of getting plug-and-play, ready to go right now AMTs,” he says. While FedEx is not currently seeing a workforce shortage, the company is losing an average of 55 to 60 maintenance technicians per year, Yount says. He says FedEx is focusing heavily on developing pipelines for new workers with other industry organizations, such as the Airlines for America and the Bay Area Council.

Lindsay Bjerregaard/AW&ST

Robert Barone (right) with participants in the JetBlue apprenticeship program at the airline’s JFK hangar.

One such organization is the Aviation Community Foundation, which works with aviation education programs to develop talent pipelines in the industry. Ethan Martin, the foundation’s CEO, says to address the impending demand for workers, it is critical to start reaching students in the K-12 age range.

“Other industries that are competing for that talent—the Googles and the Amazons—are already reaching for it,” says Martin. He points to many young people lacking information about aviation maintenance careers along with stereotypes about the industry as contributing factors. “There’s a lot of negative information out there on social media, and we hear story after story of students getting excited by AMT careers and parents saying, ‘No, we don’t want our sons or daughters to become an aircraft technician,’” says Martin.

At a recent AMT career forum at the headquarters of JetBlue Airways in Long Island City, Mike Arata, managing director for engineering at United Airlines, noted that the industry is highly dependent on family recommendations and that many students within the aviation maintenance field are pulled into another industry before getting their licenses since their skillset is highly marketable. “We have to rebrand it so that it is its own stand-alone profession, and people treat it as a profession,” he says. 

Sharon DeVivo, president of Vaughn College near New York’s LaGuardia Airport, says technology is critical in winning over younger workers. “Part of it is the challenge of trying to convey and compete with the technology,” she says. “We need students to see that it’s not just the wrench-turning that they would think.”

For Vaughn College, partnerships with Delta Air Lines and JetBlue have provided opportunities for students to train on technology such as robotics, UAVs and motion simulators. DeVivo says support from both airlines, including equipment donations and facility visits, have helped drum up interest, but a greater commitment from the industry is needed to provide assistance and investment in educational institutions that train workers for the industry. Another key factor, she says, is showing students what kind of return on investment is in it for them.

“We have seen good growth in our AMT program (5% growth in the headcount year-over-year), and we expect the upward trend to continue,” says DeVivo. “A major reason for this increase is that word of the demand is spreading, and salaries are catching up with the significant upfront investment students must make to acquire their licenses and pursue a career.” According to DeVivo, higher salaries, normalized schedules—so students will be able to anticipate their salary—and showing students a clear career pathway are key to attracting new talent.

Although the MRO industry is stable and growing, Martin says the lack of information about return on investment is an obstacle to recruiting for the industry. “The challenge we see industry-wide is if a student gets excited about this career field, what’s next? How do they map that out, especially if their parents have never been through this before?” he says.

One model that has seen significant success in attracting and retaining workers is JetBlue’s apprenticeship program. The 12-month program provides a structured curriculum and mentoring to apprentices, with an apprentice training liaison assigned to each six-student class. If an apprentice passes a test at the end of the program, he/she graduates and becomes a full-time technician at the JetBlue maintenance station where he/she apprenticed.

Robert Barone, one of JetBlue’s three apprentice training liaisons at John F. Kennedy International Airport, says the process is not only rewarding for him personally but it is also highly successful. “As long as [graduates] fit the JetBlue mold and live the values, they’re offered a job here,” he says.

According to JetBlue, the program continues to attract heavy interest. The most recent class had 2,500 applications, and all apprentices in the program graduated. To keep up with the high demand, the program is growing. Right now, JetBlue graduates two classes per year at each location, but by 2019 it plans to graduate four classes of six students each in both New York City and Boston.

Karen Roa, general manager of tech ops standards and crewmember engagement for JetBlue, says the airline’s internship and apprenticeship programs give it a leg up in engaging potential workers early on. “It gives them a taste of it, so we can get their spark ignited that way,” she says.

To get the word out, JetBlue works closely with schools in New York City and Boston as well as other aviation schools throughout the country. Turning its attention to even younger students, JetBlue has begun holding programs such as Ace Camp, where students of all ages tour JetBlue maintenance hangars and meet technicians, or Fly Like a Girl, where girls from area schools and Girl Scout troops meet women working in various careers across JetBlue and learn about different career paths in the industry.

At the AMT career forum, Martin showcased some of the Aviation Community Foundation’s initiatives to reach young people, including a recent New York Student Aviation Expedition. The foundation flew 60 students to New York City and, with the help of industry partners including JetBlue, gave them a firsthand look at what aviation careers have to offer. A science, technology, engineering and mathematics contest was held at the event, and the winning teams got to fly over the city in a Sikorsky helicopter—an experience Martin says the students shared on social media, which aligns with the foundation’s goals of raising awareness about the industry.

Initiatives like this are essential for creating interest with the next generation of potential AMTs, says Martin. “I think it’s a sense of students seeing firsthand what the jobs actually look like. If no one in their immediate social circle is part of this, they don’t really understand the opportunities,” he says. “Other industries are reaching out at the K-12 level with engaging content and curriculum, and they get hooked. It’s critical that we start early and plant those seeds.” c

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