It is no secret that the aviation maintenance industry faces workforce challenges. The often-cited Boeing Market Outlook foresees global technician demand to reach 679,000 by 2035, an Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) survey suggests that the skills gap could cost the maintenance industry $1.95 billion, and Oliver Wyman forecasts that by 2027, U.S. demand for maintenance technicians will outstrip supply by 9%. Airbus recently added its prediction to the fray, estimating that the commercial fleet will require more than a half-million new technicians by 2036. This, of course, does not take into account non-commercial aviation or studies such as the one recently commissioned by the European Business Aviation Association that warns other sectors of challenges ahead.
What is coming is pretty obvious, but the next question is how to attract the next generation of aviation technicians. Or from another perspective, what are the impediments to recruitment? While wages and industry attractiveness are certainly key components, stakeholders are taking a hard look at U.S. occupational data that does not necessarily support an imminent MRO workforce crisis.
The main point of contention originates from My Next Move, a U.S. Labor Department-sponsored tool marketed to job seekers and students exploring career options. The resource, relied on by career counselors and military transition assistance personnel, provides skill requirements, average salary and “job outlooks” for more than 900 different careers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the raw data through its 10-year national growth projections, which include growth rates and replacement projections. The Labor Department bestows “bright outlook” designations on occupations expected to increase employment by at least 14%, or have more than 100,000 job openings, over the next 10 years.
For aviation mechanics and technicians, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects only 1% growth (well below the national average of 6.5%) and annual replacement needs (e.g., retirements) of 2,900. That amounts to around 30,000 new jobs in 2014-24. Given that seemingly small number, and since estimated replacement needs do not meet the 100,000 threshold, retirements are not considered in the job outlook. Thus aviation maintenance is left with a “below average” outlook and a stormy rain cloud symbol.
The Labor Department points out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not project supply, so it cannot conclude, as Oliver Wyman did, that demand will soon outstrip the available workforce. Similarly, Bureau of Labor Statistics projections are made only 10 years out, markedly shorter than the time line used by Boeing and Airbus, and they consider only North American job data, so it is difficult to draw parallels with global forecasts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also notes that the data is consistent with its forecasted zero employment growth for air transportation as a whole. (The bureau does, however, project robust output for air transportation, which it expects to grow from a $146.1 billion industry to $185.6 billion in 2024.)
Helicopter Foundation International Vice President Allison McKay says industry’s immediate concern is the Labor Department’s conclusion that a lower growth rate compared to other industries means jobs are “less likely” to be available in the future. “While we certainly want to better understand how the raw data is derived, more pressing is the user interface that discourages people from entering an established, innovative and growing industry. And we are, in fact, hiring,” she says.
“Schools and employers already contend with the image of mechanics as unskilled (wrong), uneducated (wrong), underpaid (wrong) and unimportant (very, very wrong),” adds Brett Levanto, Aeronautical Repair Station Association vice president of communications.“When we actually break through that noise and get someone to check out the career, their own government tells them it is a ‘below average’ future? That doesn’t jibe with today’s reality, so we’re going to help prevent it from being tomorrow’s.”
There are some anticipated changes that could improve the outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ revised 2016-26 projections scheduled for release in the fall will employ changes to the replacements model. According to the Federal Register publication soliciting feedback on the change, the new method will measure separations resulting from transfers to a different occupation and from those exiting the labor force altogether (e.g., retirements); the current method just measures replacements. An experimental data set published with the notice did in fact result in a higher number of open positions, increasing from the old method’s estimate of 2,900 to 9,300. If 2017 numbers are similar, aviation mechanics and service technician replacement expectations will come closer to meeting that 100,000 threshold, which would provide a much sunnier outlook.
Additionally, under the current framework, avionics technician is considered a separate occupation, which affects the job outlook, given the number of job openings required to achieve the best designation. An aviation coalition has asked the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee to consider changes to the framework, which is scheduled for revision this summer.
Meanwhile, though McKay recognizes that government-backed numbers and conclusions are certainly not the reason for industry’s recruitment challenges, she hopes outreach and educational efforts will help set the record straight. “The next generation needs to know that there are only clear skies ahead for careers in aviation maintenance,” she says.