You began your career as an aircraft engine mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. What attracted you to aircraft maintenance and what are the biggest changes you’ve seen the industry experience since you first entered it?
It is hard to point to one thing that attracted me to aircraft maintenance. Growing up I did not have a lot of exposure to aviation beyond a couple of pilots with old bi-planes that held mock dog fights on Sunday afternoons over our neighbor’s cow pasture. But I found the whole idea of large things flying around in the sky fascinating! In high school I talked with a U.S. Air Force military recruiter quite often who was a family friend. I think it was when I heard the term ‘aircraft maintainers are the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’ from another recruiter that it clicked with me. I said that’s it, sign me up!
The biggest changes I have seen are certainly in technology and the pace of change. Aviation has always been a leader in innovation and to think today we have turbofan engines that produce 100,000-plus lbs. of thrust, composites in aircraft bodies and engine fan blades and that the industry is implementing additive manufacturing technology are all just amazing innovations. For reference, the first engine I worked on produced less than 10,000 lbs. of thrust. The other aspect of change that is worthy noting is the increasing use of data analytics in all sectors of the aviation industry. I think we have only begun to understand the power and interpretation of the data.
What is the biggest factor that you think holds women back from pursuing careers within aviation maintenance?
In a word, unaware. Along with some ERAU Worldwide colleagues, I conducted some research a few years ago to try to understand this very question. What we found is that most women are completely uninformed about the aviation maintenance career field. In our study, the few who were acquainted with the field knew about it only because they had a friend or relative working in aviation maintenance. So it is not really a matter of being held back but simply a lack of knowledge. Our grandmothers and great grandmothers proved they could do the work decades ago during WWII. We need to rekindle Rosie!
What can the industry do to better attract women to roles within aviation maintenance?
To start, industry should look at more creative partnerships with academia and particularly work with K-12 education systems. We cannot talk within our silos about the problem and hire consultants to fix it. The ‘rubber meets the road’ in the classroom and until girls know about aviation maintenance as a career,we will continue to have the dismal percentages of women in aviation maintenance. Our educators must be more prepared to provide information on aviation careers as well. We cannot expect them to teach children about careers they are also unaware exist. Some suggestions are role models, mentors from industry and with the advent of AR/VR, industry should partner with companies to create modules or short courses that provide a realistic look at aviation maintenance. There are some excellent AR/VR resources for aviation maintenance training out there. Why not adapt some of the information or concepts for children? It is easy to say we have a problem and we certainly do, but it is much harder to identify solutions. We need an industry and academia wide Rosie Reboot!
One way in which Embry-Riddle is working to help fill the future workforce pipeline is with the Aviation is Your Future online course that was held in conjunction with Girls in Aviation Day. What did the course entail and how successful was it?
The Aviation is Your Future course was offered as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and developed by our ERAU Worldwide Women in Aviation (WAI) Chapter for Girls in Aviation Day. We have offered the course for the last three years and to date have reached approximately 2,100 students across the world. While the course was designed for girls 8-12 years of age, we have had many boys take the course too. This year the MOOC really took off with WAI publishing it on its webpage--and we had live classes in South Africa. I think we ended the course with just over 250 enrollments in the online course. The course is comprised of six short modules that are focused on aviation topics--aviation terms, basic parts of an airplane, the four forces of flight (one module on Weight & Lift and one module on Thrust & Drag), helicopters and Space & NASA. The estimated time to the complete the course is around six hours. To receive the certificate of completion, participants had to view all the module pages and complete the concept-related quizzes or word puzzles. It is a small initiative and we are working on the next version for next year. Little steps all add up!
As evidenced by Greta Thunberg and all the climate protests going on lately, younger generations are clearly passionate about and interested in environmental sustainability. In that vein, you are teaching a couple courses at Embry-Riddle related to sustainability. Are you seeing this same level of interest from younger generations in the courses you’re teaching, and do you think this is a good area in which the industry can better connect with youth?
It is true that environmental sustainability is more of a concern for our younger GenZ generation. I say concern but it is more of a demand or a call for accountability in how the aviation industry is addressing environmental issues. In my sustainability courses, I have definitely seen younger students and more women interested in sustainability. The GenZers are constantly connected and the messages they receive are often one sided or incomplete. The aviation industry is one sector of transportation that dared to paint a target on their back by committing to large scale CO2 emissions reductions over the next few decades. Shouldn’t that be a good news message? Did any other industry sector take on such ambitious goals? No. My point is that this increased awareness and dedication to companies that ‘do the right thing over doing things right’ is forefront to our younger generations. In turn, the aviation industry must do more to inform them of the progress to date in efficiencies realized through technological innovation, the reach of aviation to countries around the world to provide travel, food, medicine, etc. and how the industry adds to prosperity of many nations. Finally, the aviation industry must fulfill that accountability role and step up to the plate in terms of corporate social responsibility. I am not saying that the industry is not socially responsible--there are many, many examples of how companies are doing the right things.Tell this generation in ways they understand--through social media channels, in small bites, with real world examples and deliver the message with integrity. Business as usual and traditional messages through customary channels is a doomed model of communication with the younger generations. Modernize the message medium and deliver it in a transparent way.