Cooperation and partnerships have long proven to be the keys to solving most of society’s major problems. Since these tools have also resolved a considerable number of issues for the aviation industry as well, several aviation organizations are refocusing them to help mitigate perhaps the industry’s most critical problem, the shortage of qualified aviation maintenance technicians. Chuck Weirauch reports.
A glance at the Boeing Global Services 2017 Pilot and Technician Outlook outlines the potential aviation maintenance technician (AMT) shortage, citing a projected demand in commercial aviation for 648,000 new technicians globally, and 118,000 in North America alone by the year 2036. These numbers exceed the projected demand for new pilots, 637,000 worldwide and 117,000 in North America, not counting those speculated to be required for business aviation.
Compounding the demand issue is the number of unfilled technical positions reported by members of the Aviation Repair Station Association (ARSA) in the organization’s recent member survey. Fifty-five percent of surveyed member companies reported having unfilled positions, and, based on the average number of vacancies, the organization estimates that its members currently have 1,045 open technical jobs. When projected across the entire population of FAA-certified repair stations in the United States, the current number of such unfilled technical jobs could be as high as 11,000.
“For the first time since we have asked our members the question of what the biggest challenge to the industry is, they responded that the challenge of finding technical workers tied that of regulatory requirements,” said ARSA vice president for Communications, Brett Levanto. “So we really see this coming to the fore as being a key issue. Also we estimate that, based on the member survey, the current vacancy rate is also costing the industry roughly $2 billion a year. It is difficult for our members to meet demand and to perform work as efficiently as possible because they don’t have the people who are trained in place.”
Yet another costly problem for repair stations is the time it takes to “onboard” a new technician such that they become a fully productive, profitable and relatively independent employee, Levanto stated. According to ARSA members, it takes someone with their AMT certificate nine months of onboarding time to be fully trained up in policies and practices in a repair station to be a fully productive employee. Then it takes 14 months for a non-certificated technician once they come in the door to make them similarly productive.
Still another AMT pipeline problem is on the supplier side, with not enough students signing up with aviation colleges, technical schools and other academic institutions to pursue a career as an aviation technician and help meet the increasing demand for such professionals. It’s not that there isn’t enough overall capacity for increasing enrollments in the US, since according to the current FAA aviation maintenance technician school (AMTS) database, total current enrollment for all AMT schools is 17,791. With an FAA-regulated capacity of 34,566, the current AMTS student load factor is 51 percent, according to the 2017 Aviation Maintenance Technician School Survey conducted by the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC).
“So there is a lot of capacity left to get students into an AMT program,” said ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire. “More so the bottleneck is recruiting K through 12 students. If we (the schools) can get our industry partners to come work with us, or vice versa – then we can get more people into the pipeline.”
The just-completed 2017 ATEC survey includes about 60 to 70 percent of the US schools with airframe and powerplant mechanic programs. The “big takeaway” revealed by the survey is that enrollment is increasing at the schools, with the driver for that being a change in the market demand, Maguire noted. She also pointed out that the graduation rate is about 75 percent.
“But students are on their own to take the mechanic test,” Maguire cautioned, “so the school does not necessarily facilitate that for them. Only 60 to 70 percent of students decide to take the test. But ATEC sees this as kind of an opportunity. We are trying to change this by getting companies more involved on the school level to highlight the benefits for the AMT career path. We need to ask employers if they have a cooperative agreement or partnership with a school. So far, the schools surveyed are reporting that 50 percent of them have an agreement with a repair station. Others report lower percentages of partnerships with regional airlines, with the lowest percentage with major airlines.”
Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ is one AMT school that is partnering with an aviation partner in need of AMTs, namely aircraft manufacturer Bombardier. According to Greg Wilson, Dean of Applied Technology at the college, like approximately 30 percent of such schools, it offers both a nine-month AMT program to meet FAA Part 147 requirements, along with a five-month Avionics program. Although that rule does not call for such an avionics program, that percentage of schools that have it, help provide the level of education employers are demanding. That is primarily so that their students can keep up with the rapid technological advances in the avionics field. The lack of adequate training in avionics is considered a major skills gap for aviation technicians by employers.
“There is not a lot of avionics in the current Part 147 rule, so some schools have a separate avionics program and call it advanced avionics,” Maguire pointed out. “That’s one way they are meeting the need outside of the current regulations because they could not create the knowledge and skill level sought by employers within the current FAA-required AMT program.”
Along with the quality gap, Pima is working to meet the quantity gap, the increasing number of AMTs and non-certified technicians needed by the aviation industry.
“Our need to provide qualified technicians in the large aerospace and defense area in southern Arizona is more than eight times the national average,” Wilson reported. “We have a real desperate need to meet what the industry is looking for, and we are woefully underequipped to meet the need of our local employers in our space. We could double and possibly triple our space, and we plan to do just that. We are also ordering new equipment, which does include simulators for avionics, and then we have several aircraft, including three 727s.”
A New Approach
The technician talent shortage in Tucson and the southern Arizona area, is an example of what is taking place in the US and globally. The talent shortage is now so acute that while employers will continue to work with their local community colleges, as Bombardier does with Pima, as well as universities and flight academies, they can’t get enough of the talent that they need, according to Tim Welsh. He is the Executive Director of the non-profit Talent Solutions Coalition (TSC), which essentially provides a talent (in this case qualified maintenance technicians) supply chain for aviation employers. Both Maguire and Wilson serve on the TSC Leadership Team.
The TSC is headquartered at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita, KS. According to Welsh, the organization was designed by industry leaders to employ the best practices in talent pipeline management. The organization holds annual educational Forums for its membership, which are designed to share best practices in talent planning management, and operates mostly on membership dues, charging what Welsh describes as a “nominal amount” for its services.
The TSC considers educational institutions to be the suppliers of talent to employers. One recent notable TSC customer and employer has been ExpressJet Airlines. About 25 percent of the regional’s 6,200 employees are technicians, so it is vital to the airline to be able to have a steady supply of the best technicians available to stay competitive. ExpressJet approached the TSC for assistance in late 2016, the year that the organization opened its doors.
The first phase of the TSC and ExpressJet effort is to develop a supply chain which produces Advanced AMTs, focusing on TechOps. The key to the effort is a competency-based job-task analysis that includes workplace behaviors, advanced technical skills and regulatory knowledge.
Welsh explained that the first thing that TSC does is to develop a job task analysis with the suppliers and the employers together. That way, the suppliers get a first-hand view of what the employer wants, including skills and professional attributes. The employers also get an opportunity to refresh their thinking of the profile of the candidates that they want in these roles.
“So the job task analysis leads to a pretty good blueprint for the skills and attributes for a maintenance technician, and frankly reflects some new things that employers need,” Welsh pointed out. “Among them would be a better understanding of advanced avionics, as much as possible. The job task analysis description also would show increased knowledge of advanced avionics expertise, and place an emphasis in workplace professionalism, along with testing the job readiness of candidates.
“They (ExpressJet) are very interested in the Coalition because we can help them to source talent from multiple markets simultaneously,” Welch summed up. “Our suppliers in the supply chain context are educational institutions and education providers in different states.”
Quantity and Quality
In the year that the TSC has been in operation, the organization has noted that employers have been focusing primarily on the need for the volume of technicians they need to hire to meet their requirements, Welsh reported. On the other hand, employers have had to turn away a significant percentage of maintenance technicians who apply for jobs in their companies often because the candidate does not have the requisite employability skills.
“The applicants may have completed their Part 147 certification, but did not have the level of professionalism that the employers were seeking,” he stated. “In some cases, the percentage of job candidates that are being turned away can be as high as 40 percent.”
In order to help meet the quality gap, as well as the quantity gap, the TSC, ATEC and ARSA, along with several other aviation organizations are encouraging their memberships - comprised of industry employers and educational providers - to work together in partnerships so that the schools can better provide students with the curricula that will allow them to learn the specific skills that employers need on the job.
“We are so into these school-industry partnerships, and that is what the TSC is doing - connecting industry and schools together and making sure that the schools can provide those needs through the curricula they offer,” Maguire said. “The industry partners can tell the schools what curricula they need, and then help the schools develop that curricula. A lot of ATEC members are also members of the TSC to help work on the skills gap, and create a product that meets their customers’ needs. Partnerships are vital to making sure you are teaching what people need.”
“ARSA supports stimulating partnerships between academics and industry in order to make sure that skills that are being trained within local communities, and state organizations are in line with what is actually needed in the workforce,” Levanto agreed. “We want to encourage all of our members to get engaged with academic institutions out there as a Part 147 school, and really start to be able to build a specific program pipeline. And that’s building the skill sets that they need. We encourage our members to get involved in helping to build curricula with those academic institutions.”
Published in CAT issue 1/2018