In the context of an aging workforce and evolving aircraft, the MRO industry needs to be proactive in the implementation of initiatives to support maintenance recruitment, training, and personnel retention. Mario Pierobon examines the issues.

The challenge of recruiting aircraft maintenance technicians in modern times is exacerbated by the generally low regard for so-called ‘blue collar’ jobs. However, some aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations are successfully overcoming this misperception.

“Our business is evolving; planes are increasingly modern, they communicate their faults themselves and even anticipate them. In such context of high-level technological developments, we need some sort of ‘double’ expertise: big data management and operational know-how,” Jérôme Ivanoff, Human Resource Director at Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M), told CAT.

According to Ivanoff what is being faced is the age pyramid, but this is the same as with all sectors in the maintenance world: MROs, airlines, as well as OEMs. When the ‘double expertise’ concept is explained, he said, “the limited attractiveness of ‘blue collar’ work tends to decrease while the use of new advanced technologies reinforces the motivation of the candidates to join our teams.”

“Training at AFI KLM E&M is seen as an investment,” he emphasised. “We have developed within our training department a team in charge of innovation. This team works in concert with the other members of the company’s innovation network and is responsible for developing modern and innovative teaching materials using digital technological solutions. The objective of this is to enhance the educational efficiency of our training.”

Apprenticeship Schemes

KLM UK Engineering, a fully owned subsidiary of AFI KLM E&M, has long been focused on the future of aviation maintenance engineers. The company has been running its own in-house apprenticeship scheme for over 35 years. In addition to the apprenticeship scheme the company runs a full EASA Part 147 Technical Training College at its Norwich, UK head office.

“Products range from supporting aviation engineering and degree programmes with the local University to B1.1 & B2 aircraft type training, Initial and Continuation training, to our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) online platform for Part 66 CAT A, B1.1 & B2. These products allow us to offer technical training to external customers worldwide and to develop our own staff,” said Chris Tubby, Training Sales Manager at KLM UK Engineering.

“The retention of staff can be a challenge in the world of aviation, but we seem to be able to retain staff for a number of years, with some of the longest-serving being over 45 years. Staff have been, and continue to be offered training courses with the company to gain their licences and different aircraft types. There are also opportunities to progress through the company in a number of different roles, with many ex-apprentices having management roles such as base maintenance manager and operations director.”

“We also developed a learning policy whereby each year we welcome a new wave of apprentices, mainly in our aeronautical maintenance trades, and we offer outgoing apprentices a permanent contract,” Ivanoff added.

Modifying Perceptions

According to Brett Levanto, Vice President of Operations at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), the culture-wide perception of certain jobs is beyond the direct influence of individual businesses.

“How each of them copes with the perception depends on the specifics of their situation, particularly in terms of how many people they need to fill current gaps,” he said. “For those with desperate needs – hangars sitting empty or hundreds of jobs needing to be filled – it is a game of blanketing potential employment areas and working to train up everyone who is eligible and interested. For those who can be more circumspect, it is often the case that they are making the application process more exacting, adding recommendations, interviews, practical testing; this communicates to applicants and potential applicants the importance and value of the work.”

Levanto believes that the way the industry talks about the aircraft maintenance profession can alter its perception in the outer world. “There are a lot of industries one might consider ‘blue collar’ that are competing – and doing better at it – for the same people we need in aviation. Yet we drive the narrative, in general, with the fact that the hours are long, the shifts are late, and the rewards are limited. There are obviously a lot of answers to this question and it is part of a much larger cultural issue, but somehow we tend to let ourselves fall behind all the other professions that depend on technically skilled people,” he said.

Best practices are specific to each company and depend on the specific place in the industry that each company occupies, but in general it is good practice for companies to build local networks and partnerships to stimulate and grow talent. “Working with local schools and community organizations, supporting events and in particular STEM activities for students, opening facility doors for field days and trips – all of these create connections that can bear fruit over time in terms of applicant interest,” said Levanto.

KLM UK Engineering works with local schools and colleges to promote careers in aviation and holds open days on a regular basis for prospective apprentices and general recruits to get a feel for the company.

“We find that being represented by current apprentices and engineers makes a difference and especially to young people to entice them into careers in aviation and they get to hear first-hand what is involved. Being part of events and posting news on social media that reaches large varied audiences is the best way for us to promote these careers,” said Tubby.

Like other MROs, AFI KLM E&M has been looking for mechanics on the job market and, so far, it has had no major problems. “Our situation is explained by several factors; according to the candidates we interviewed, the first two criteria which stand out to justify their choice are the prestige of the Air France brand and the quality of life at work,” said Ivanoff. “In the HR action plan for 2019 we significantly developed our sourcing, including with whom to work, how to make ourselves visible and on which channels to communicate to say that we are recruiting.”

AFI KLM E&M has also widened its fields of intervention. “We are working with colleges, high schools, the state employment organisation (Pôle Emploi) and we will increasingly intervene with the various regional authorities to make it known that we are recruiting and in which trades. We have organised meetings with people looking for a job and with the various structures of Pôle Emploi to explain our trades,” said Ivanoff.

Recruiting Technicians

Most of the external recruitment at KLM UK Engineering takes place directly via its website while most of the technician roles are recruited for internally and follow a policy of growing and upskilling own staff.

“A technician requires a B1 or B2 license, ideally with the addition of one of the aircraft types we work on, on their license. It would be preferred that the applicant had held and used the license for at least a year. To obtain the B license at least two to five years’ experience is required depending on previous experience,” said Tubby. “Soft skills would include strong leadership and management skills, being highly organised, calmness in a crisis, collaboration, having empathy and being a team player.”

Every year AFI KLM E&M puts together an action plan based on an analysis of its workforce as part of a ‘Forward-looking Management of Jobs and Skills’ programme. “Last year mobility aspects were also included by promoting the access of other Air France divisions’ employees to the different opportunities we offer. Between 80 to 90 employees which were either certifying or qualifying entered our courses,” said Ivanoff.

In 2019 AFI KLM E&M launched a ‘job dating’ programme.

“This type of practice dramatically shortens the processing time. Together with our mother company Air France we organised a full day of recruitment to allow the candidates to go through the entire recruitment process of the company. At the end of the day we were able to offer a promise of employment,” said Ivanoff.

“As these people were summoned to pass the selection, representatives of the various departments came to present their trades in a very effective manner. The ‘job dating’ experience was for the job of aeronautical maintenance mechanic in different specialties: engines, component, aircraft, structure on metal and composite parts. We summoned over 90 people, issued 55 hiring promises and only had four refusals. The conversion rate was extremely satisfactory. We will therefore continue it, or even extend it to other categories of employees, such as ground handling agents.”

Motivating & Retaining

In addition to recruiting practices, there are best practices for aircraft maintenance organisations to retain their employees and to keep them motivated to do their job. “Employee retaining practices vary from company to company and from need to need. We should encourage business leaders to think about what their people need,” said Levanto. “One medium-sized company I have worked with has been doing community and family engagement: they host events and classes for the families of technicians – the topics could be almost anything – bring out food trucks to feed team members working during weekends, or otherwise try to serve the quality of life of their people. Such ideas may well be very enticing, but what is key is that the company has chosen to try them because it believes there will be a positive impact on its operatives.”

“We manage to retain staff by investing in the company and providing individuals with new opportunities, for example providing continuous type training on new types required by the company, the opportunity for mechanics to study for their B1 or B2 license via our VLE product, away from base opportunities, providing feedback to individuals on their performance and staff benefits including shift pay, personal development plans and an active sports and social club,” said Tubby. “We are currently building a new hangar which will provide additional opportunities for staff for career progression.”

An employee retention practice implemented by AFI KLM E&M has been to set up structured work rhythms in hangars and workshops which facilitate the coordination between the professional and personal lives of operatives.

“In addition, we not only recruit young people but also people who already have professional experience and want to leave difficult working hours,” said Ivanoff. “The attractiveness of the trades is one of the motivating vectors to which is added the opportunity to have access to professional careers offering many possibilities. All this combined means that we have an extremely low turnover. For example, aircraft mechanics often spend their entire careers at Air France. As they leave the hangar or workshop, they may join the engineering departments or the training centre where their field experiences are recognised and appreciated.”

Published in CAT issue 2/2020