Chuck Weirauch examines the issues that are complicating the aviation technician shortage problem, and what solutions are being found to resolve them.
If one were to believe the 2014 US Government Accountability Office (GAO)'s Current and Future Availability of Aviation Engineering and Maintenance Professionals aviation workforce report (http://gao/assets/670/661239.pdf), there is no severe lack of employees in these categories.
But in comparison, the Aviation Repair Station Association’s (ARSA) 2014 member survey found that nearly 9 out of 10 (85 percent) indicated that they have had at least some difficulty filling technical positions with the right people, while a quarter (26 percent) reported that it was very difficult to do so. Along with Boeing's 2014 Pilot and Technician Outlook that reported 109,000 new technicians in North America alone (584,000 worldwide) would be needed by 2033, and along with other reports of high demand and short supply, one would have to doubt the accuracy of the GAO study.
While those directly involved with line aircraft maintenance operations such as MROs and airlines are feeling the pinch, so do those who provide advanced training for aircraft maintenance technicians for such customers. One of those people is Mike Lee, director of Maintenance Training for FlightSafety International (FSI).
"Our classes are regularly pretty full, but if you are asking me if we are seeing the results of the shortage, absolutely," Lee related. "Our customers are telling us on a regular basis that they are having difficulty in getting technicians. As our marketing folks are going around, the common question they get asked is "do you know of any technicians?"
According to Ryan Goertzen, president of the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), there definitely is an acute shortage of aviation maintenance technicians. But he thinks that the problem is worse because it is in two tiers.
"One is a shortage of people moving into the aviation career set of fields, but the other piece of it is a knowledge gap," Goertzen pointed out. "The average age of maintenance technicians is above 50, so we have to consider how to bridge this knowledge gap that is also going to exist when these very seasoned mechanics choose to go into retirement. This will be a definite concern as older, seasoned mechanics start to leave the workforce."
Training Gaps Further compounding the problem of an aviation engineering and maintenance technician shortage is the view that many graduates of A&P schools do not have the technological knowledge and skills that are required to service and repair today's modern aircraft. According to Goertzen, one of the primary causes for this training gap is the antiquated FAA Part 147 Aviation Maintenance Technician Schools curriculum requirements, which are a critical part of that rule for what must be taught in FAA-certified A&P schools.
In looking at Appendix C to Part 147 - Airframe Curriculum Subjects - and seeing such teaching requirements for the "service and repair wood structures" and "select and apply fabric and fiberglass covering materials" - and in Appendix D to Part 147 Powerplant Curriculum Subjects, "Inspect and repair radial engines", one would have to agree with Goertzen. There seems to be a significant need to revise Part 147 as to what is required to be taught by the FAA in A&P schools so that graduates are more prepared to work on modern aircraft systems. The most significant problem with Part 147 is that the curriculum requirements are embedded in the rule, he emphasized.
"When you ask about aviation maintenance technician training gaps, you have to consider that the Part 147 regulation has not changed significantly in 40 years," Goertzen said. "We are still doing dope and fabric, and wood structures and unducted fans in the curriculum requirements, and human factors aren’t even in the regulation yet, if you can believe that. So you are not talking about advanced composites and new data systems."
"And think about a Boeing 787, which is almost all electrical,” Goertzen continued, “when you get out of an A&P school, and you go to a repair station to go work on a 737 NG, it is an enormous jump in what you have learned, to what you are going to go to have to work on. The 147 rule has to change in order for us to eliminate antiquated required classroom times within this mandated, time-based curriculum. We need to focus time to where we are today in the world of aviation."
According to ARSA's VP of Communications, Brett Levanto, the rewriting of Part 147 is a real priority for the maintenance training industry. Both ARSA and ATEC, along with other major aviation industry organizations, have been calling for the FAA to publish an FAA Notice of Public Rule Making (NPRM) action that would lead to modernizing the Part 147 rule.
"We are aiming at specifically getting the curriculum out of the rule itself, so that our schools can have the kind of flexibility that they need to really prepare the students for the advanced technical work that they are going to be doing on the flight line," Levanto explained.
Lee agrees with Ryan and Levanto in that not only is there such a training gap, but that the problem is getting worse, with serious implications for the industry.
"The trends that we are seeing is that there is a larger and larger gap between the ab initio training or someone coming out of A&P school, and the requirements for industry," Lee said. "The A&P schools have obviously not been able to spend the money to keep up with all of the technology, and because of that, the gap is there. And the gap is unfortunately growing every day."
Because of the training gap, Lee said that FSI must provide more remedial training for AMTs who are sent to them for advanced maintenance training.
"We have a different role when we receive the student at FlightSafety that has not had a lot of experience in the field, and maybe not that long out of A&P school, because they just don't have the basic technology understanding that we need to move on into the advanced training," Lee explained. "So we have to go backwards some, much more than we have had to in the past, to learn more of the basics. They are not up on the current aircraft or engines, for example."
Simulation the Solution? Although simulation-based training solutions have been shown to enhance learning, simply introducing them into the A&P school's curricula does not address either the issue of the outdated required topics to be covered, nor the actual hours required to earn A&P certifications. Besides, the schools want to focus on more hands-on learning with actual aircraft components for ab-initio A&P training, and generally consider simulation-based tools too expensive for such introductory education.
"Students are at A&P schools to learn the fundamentals for them to be successful in aviation maintenance, and they are not always going to get the latest and greatest training tools and technologies," Goertzen pointed out. "It is important that the foundational level of our schools remain very much the way they are today. And one of the reasons why we have not gone to the simulations is that - while there is no doubt that there is tremendous value at some point later on in the curriculum after the fundamentals are understood and maintained - it is just so expensive, and its cost is the barrier for most schools."
So instead of integrating the higher level instructional tools into ab initio education, most A&P schools are incorporating distance education and opening up their curricula to different modalities of learning, Levanto said.
"A lot of students are bringing iPads or surface pads into the classroom, tied to a learning management system, allowing them 24/7 access to materials," he clarified. "So I think that what you are seeing is what most schools are doing, and what ATEC is really pushing, is distance education, and you see a lot of that. But I think that there is still a cost barrier that exists to the 3D animation, and full flight simulator capability in the classroom from a desktop PC."
Technology for Advanced Training According to Lee, all of FlightSafety's advanced A&P courseware, as well as reference manuals, are available to its students on iPads, and the company has developed numerous training apps for use with the tablets. In addition, the FlightSafety Matrix flight simulator system allows data to be sent to a classroom PC so that customers can have a virtual representation of the actual aircraft in the classroom. The training provider also employs intelligent tutoring technology to assist students in achieving higher levels learning and retention.
"So technology, yes, we are incorporating all of the latest and greatest in learning technologies," Lee summarized. "But more important, we are working to understand how the learner learns, then help them in their realm instead of just standing up and lecturing. Intelligent tutoring yields you a higher retention rate, which is much higher than with a straight lecture. And really what intelligent tutoring says is that the student must participate. They can't just sit in the classroom and pose that they have learned. They have to be able to demonstrate what they have learned, and that's something we do very heavily."
No Solution Without Change The good news concerning the AMT shortage is that ATEC reports that the vast majority of its 150-member A&P schools have at least seen consistent levels of enrollment, with some seeing expanded enrollment and many seeing some kind of growth in the future. But the bad news to counter even this good news, is that based on the 2014 ATEC member survey responses, one of four graduates from an A&P program in the United States goes to a career outside of the aviation industry.
"So that's over 2,000 students a year that are spending 18 months in an A&P program - having all those skill sets specific to aviation - then are being lured into other skills-based industries," Levanto said. "Their skill sets make them attractive candidates for a bunch of other industries. And the lure of those other industries is strong enough to pull them off the flight line."
So how does the aviation industry work to help meet the seemingly insolvable technician shortage problem? Both ATEC and ARSA report that nearly all of its memberships have very active recruitment and outreach programs, with the latter reaching out to students starting at elementary school levels on up the educational scale. And ATEC has also recently partnered with the US Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Educational Council to promote the concept that high-skill level technical careers are just as viable as those that call for four-year collegiate degrees and higher.
The other course is for the aviation associations and the industry itself to continue to call for changes in FAA regulations, primarily Part 147, along with other joint actions. And this June, a coalition of aviation trade associations led by ATEC that included ARSA and the Aerospace Maintenance Council, Airlines for America, the Cargo Airline Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Air Carrier Association, the National Air Transport Association and the Regional Airline Association, asked the US Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Policy Committee and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to revise the SOC system to more accurately reflect the aviation maintenance industry.
The SOC system provides the framework for all occupational statistics collected and disseminated by US federal agencies. Within the current system, nearly all aviation maintenance professionals are classified into a single occupation titled “Aircraft Mechanics and Technicians.” Goertzen believes that this system is what led the GAO to its reportedly inaccurate assessment of the US AMT shortage.
“Data empowers organizations to make sound decisions,” Goertzen summed up. “With today's SOC structure, we can't build a world-class workforce because the data is unreliable and inaccurate to capture our industry needs.”