TRENDS

Aircraft Mechanic Shortage Spawns Innovationby John Persinos

Here’s a look at the new tactics the MRO industry is deploying to cope with the increasingly acute aircraft mechanic shortage

The media devote considerable ink and pixels to the pilot shortage. This problem is well known. What’s given short shrift is the shortage of aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs).

Aviation mechanics are the unsung heroes who keep aircraft in the air. And there aren’t enough of them. Aircraft operators and MRO outfits are grappling with this shortage. It threatens safety as well as bottom lines. Here, we examine the latest solutions to address the shortage.

MRO shops and aircraft operators are developing new solutions for aircraft maintenance recruitment, training and retention.

Major MRO players, such as Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M), Monarch Aircraft Engineering, Lufthansa Technik, and AAR, are creating new aircraft mechanic courses that provide MRO certification.

Separately, the MRO shortage is a boon for aircraft maintenance schools and aircraft mechanic colleges. For students, it raises the issue of aircraft mechanic school cost. Let’s examine these issues. First, some context.

Boeing recently forecast a need for 600,000 AMTs over the next 20 years. According to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Aviation Maintenance Science Chair Chuck Horning, retirements are outplacing replacements. Baby Boomers are easing into their golden years and younger people are shunning the profession.

Contrary to public misperception, AMTs aren’t just wrench turners. They’re more than mere grease monkeys. They require sophisticated computer skills and training. Their jobs are ultra-sophisticated and high tech. But many technical-minded youngsters don’t believe it. When contemplating careers, they listen instead to the Siren’s Song of Silicon Valley.

Horning also is an executive with the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC). He said the entire aerospace industry is only replacing about half of the positions lost to retirement. The good news is applications for aviation maintenance training are rising at ERAU and elsewhere.

“About a quarter of graduates are bleeding away to the energy industries or technology sector,” Horning said. “More are completing their education but are not outpacing the retirement rate.” AFI KLM E&M identified the looming shortage a decade ago and began actively promoting aircraft careers. MROs are meeting the challenge by setting up partnerships with local community colleges and developing apprenticeship programs.

AAR purchases, sells, leases, repairs, and overhauls airframe parts, including avionics and electronic, fuel, and hydraulic components. Based in Wood Dale, Illinois, AAR employs about 7,000 people in 17 countries at more than 60 locations around the world. AAR ranks as the largest independent airframe maintenance provider in the U.S. by man-hours generated.

There are a variety of career opportunities available at AAR for qualified and talented individuals, including at AAR’s network of seven facilities in North America, the largest in the Americas and number three worldwide. 

Kathleen Cantillon, AAR spokesperson, put the AMT shortage into context:

“Yes, one of biggest challenges for AAR’s MRO business is the limited availability of experienced AMTs to meet demand,” Cantillon said. “AAR is currently hiring AMTs for our MRO in Rockford, Illinois and other locations with a focus on avionics and sheet metal, two areas where the shortage is particularly bad.”

Cantillon said there has been a lack of high-quality technical training since government education policy and funding moved away from technical schools and to four-year colleges. “AAR has done its best to partner with technical schools and community colleges near our MROs, advise on their training curriculum and provide apprenticeships to their graduates,” she said. “It is also helpful and makes an MRO location more attractive when it is in an aerospace cluster like Rockford, where multiple companies and the local and state government can help share the costs of creating new and improved technical training programs.”

These partnerships provide scholarships and subsidies to help students with the burden of aircraft mechanic school cost.

One of the reasons AAR chose to build a new MRO facility in Rockford was the local promise to establish an AMT training program at nearby Rock Valley Community College, which is now underway. “Everyone wins. Jobs are created and AAR can hire locally,” Cantillon said.

New Hires: Woefully Unprepared

FAA Part 145 repair stations increasingly report that it’s difficult to find technicians. And that brings us to another problem: the inadequacy of FAA-approved aircraft mechanic & maintenance training programs.

A U.S. rulemaking that would enable Part 145 schools to update aircraft mechanic courses to meet the changing needs of the industry has been stalled for years. The bureaucratic delay sheds light on why new MRO hires are unprepared. They aren’t being taught the care and feeding of new technology aircraft. Today’s A&P students are still being taught on aircraft and materials using decades-old technologies.

“A lot of people, especially parents of kids getting ready for college, don’t fully realize that the MRO field is a high-tech profession,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at The Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy. “But being an MRO mechanic is a well-paying, secure and respected job. There’s more to technology than Google and Facebook.

Aircraft operators are starting to market MRO openings as being prestigious.” When recruiting, AFI KLM E&M highlights the skills needed for an aircraft mechanics job. But the company also emphasizes how the position affords travel, development opportunities and a good salary. Importantly, KLM UK is striving to increase the small number of women engineers.

Lufthansa Technik operates its own apprenticeship and qualification program. The apprentice system is a hallowed tradition in Germany and Lufthansa Technik is spreading the notion among its operations around the world.

Lufthansa Technik sees the biggest change in the content and daily work coming from digitalization. A platform such as AVIATAR Lufthansa Technik makes it possible to find the right data at the right place at the right time.

AVIATAR is an open, modular and holistic computer platform for the entire aviation industry. AVIATAR offers a broad spectrum of digital products and services for airlines, MROs, OEMs and lessors. Paperless maintenance ensures no data is lost when looking at aircraft history.

Similarly., Monarch Aircraft Engineering, which remains in business despite the fortunes of its parent company, has its own apprentice program with 600 applicants. Apprentices rotate through its Component Maintenance Centre composite workshop to gain knowledge of composite repair, helping them keep up with new developments.

Training itself has become quite futuristic. AFI KLM E&M designed a virtual learning web-based tool, allowing students to study EASA qualifications anywhere and anytime.

In addition, AFI KLM E&M has developed courses allowing students to train within aircraft operation facilities. Developments in virtual reality training facilitate onsite study that’s faster and more flexible. New computer-based assessment tools allow better tracking of a student’s progress.

Yes, there’s a chronic worldwide shortage of sufficiently trained mechanics. But the industry is meeting the challenge head-on.

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