Global MRO Workforce and Skills Needed For Future
By Kathryn B. Creedy
- Global MRO employment down 3.5% to 385,000 employees working for more than 4,900 firms in the civil maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) market at the start of 2021
- Increased government spending on education needed
- US competitiveness at risk
- Schools need modern avionics, engines to deliver workforce industry needs
- Numerous industry workforce development programs making a difference
This article is fourth in a series assessing workforce needs in different industry sectors. Parts One and Two dealt with manufacturing. Part III covered the impact of Covid on the MRO industry.
By the Numbers
Globally, employment was at 385,000 employees working for more than 4,900 firms in the civil maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) market at the start of 2021, down only 3.5% from the beginning of 2020, according to a recent Oliver Wyman study. In the US, there are more than 4,000 firms with nearly 185,000 employees in the civil MRO market, 5% fewer than at the start of 2020.
“While the impact of the crisis remains severe, recovery does now appear to be underway,” said the company in a newer report. “Two-thirds of respondents expect MRO demand to recover to 2019 levels in 2022 or 2023, in line with Oliver Wyman’s forecast of fleet recovery to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 with MRO following closely. Notably, airline respondents generally expect a slightly earlier recovery than MRO respondents. Regionally, Western European survey respondents were more pessimistic than respondents in North America and other parts of the world on how long recovery will take.”
On of the few projections for the technician workforce available is Boeing’s Pilot and Technician outlook, which last year, predicted a need for 739,000 by 2039.
NAVEO Consultancy Managing Director Richard Brown worries about the people lost, especially those in who have experienced previous downturns.
“I have observed key people jumping, people the industry cannot afford to lose; those you really need for recovery,” he said. “There is a lot of experience that left – senior engineers, chief engineers. How do you get that knowledge transferred after they leave? Nobody has quantified this, but I suspect the industry will have a few bad years recovering from that. Yes, we’ll have shortage, but my question is whether or not we’ve lost talent that will impact recovery and what the impact of that is. This is true around the world at OEMs, manufacturers and MROs. I’m worried those who are left think they can’t do anything else or are not motivated the way those we lost were.”
He is not alone in his concern.
“Representatives from an aviation manufacturers also told us that changes in demand for aircraft may result in the loss of key skill sets as manufacturing businesses reduce employment and skilled aviation workers migrate to other industries,” said a recent General Accountability Office report. “We have previously reported on industry concerns that an insufficient supply of certain aviation professionals – including those involved in aviation manufacturing – could develop as a result of retirements and a perception that fewer people are entering aviation professions.”
Legislative Support Needed
GAO recommended additional Congressional action in supporting aviation workforce development including retention incentives and expanding the pipeline which are already underway.
Workforce issues are high on Congressional and President Biden’s agendas. Congress has already passed three initiatives in addition to Coronavirus relief packages.
Most recently, it passed payroll relief and industry is urging eligible U.S. aviation manufacturers and maintenance businesses to start preparing for participation in the Department of Transportation’s $3 billion Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection (AMJP). The temporary program, created under the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act requires 50/50 cost-sharing match between employers and the federal government to support compensation. DOT announced recently it would soon accept applications for AMJP on a newly created website.
Congress also required FAA reform aviation maintenance training going so far as to prescribe the language the new rule should use. The agency missed the March deadline to issue the new Part 147 which streamlines oversight, eliminating duplication – and conflict – between the accreditation and quality control requirements under the Department of Education and FAA. It also expands capacity enabling distance learning and allows aviation maintenance schools to broaden their footprint to local high schools.
“The big gap there was the curriculum taught in the A&P schools is very dated and it had a shortfall of the real skills that these candidates need to master when they’d step into an MRO or an airline,” Launch Technical Workforce Solutions CEO Mike Guagenti told Aviation Week recently. “Our program is designed to bridget that gap and we call our center of excellence. We’re working on this with some schools to not only add additional curriculum and skillset development for the students coming out of the schools, but also to embed instructors or supervisors on the job site and help that transition, similar to our Working Heroes program, to help these candidates transition.”
Finally, spearheaded by the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), it created workforce grants for pilots, engineers and maintenance technicians and recently closed applications for the first round. The industry is now pushing Congress to fund the grants in the next fiscal year. The grants fund between $25,000 and $500,000 for any single grant per fiscal year.
Others, arguing education investment is also critical to American competitiveness, are urging the government to increase education investment including Harvard Professor of Public Policy David Deming. “The United States spends a paltry 0.1 percent of gross domestic product on active labor market policies, less than one-fifth the average of other developed nations,” he said, writing in the New York Times. “The lack of federal dollars to states in the past few decades, meant the loss of state educational programs and the increase in for-profit college enrollments. This is unfortunate, because a recent review of more than 200 studies finds that job training has large, long-term effects on employment, especially during recessions.”
Oliver Wyman reported one of the biggest threats to the industry is airframe OEMs moving into the service sector. However, it indicated they would likely focus on engine and component aftermarkets, rather than airframe.
“Interestingly, airlines and MROs generally believe OEMs have more significant aftermarket aspirations than OEMs themselves indicated,” said the company.
Industry needs will not be met by numbers alone since the skills have changed dramatically and will continue to change. FA/AW News has already reported on the skills challenge wrought just by new powerplants, eVTOL, advanced air mobility and unmanned systems which all threaten to change the way MROs do business. In addition, MROs will see more competition in this sector as powerful companies with vast service networks such as automakers enter the space. Perhaps the most dramatic change for aviation maintenance schools and MRO companies alike will be the need for super technicians.
“MROs and manufacturers will be looking for highly skilled ‘super technicians’, someone with both A&P and avionics expertise rolled into one,” Utah Valley University Associate Professor, School of Aviation Sciences Stephen Ley told FA/AW News. “We need to integrate these two disciplines so we can keep emergent aircraft safely operational, compliant to certification requirements and reliable. Traditional aircraft will not go away but they will evolve to include the XTI Aircraft Trifan 600, Joby S4 and the magniX-electric-powered Caravan.”
Ley is joined by the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association in working to develop programs to address the skills needed for the advance air mobility industry, according to Vice-President Ken MacTiernan.
While Ley’s program is pivoting to address these new requirements, so too is academia which calls for an inter-disciplinary approach to higher education as FA/AW News reported in February.
In fact, educators are suggesting an entirely new approach to education based on stackable credentials complemented by career-long continuing education programs to keep the workforce current with advancing technology.
During recent testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski, aiming for certification in 2022, reminded us that regulators also need to be hired and trained for new technology when he recommended Congress provide more funding for FAA to increase hiring and training for electric aircraft. Government workforce needs will be covered in a future FA/AW News report.
Ganzarski also expressed concern about US competitiveness saying the country is not keeping up with international competitors having lost its reputation for pioneering innovation. He noted US shortcomings in leading industries and added the US lagged in responding to two major international cultural shifts embraced elsewhere including the effort to further democratize on-demand aviation in both affordability and accessibility and in moving to clean energy.
Educators Using Outdated Tech
But it is not the digital transformation alone that impacts workforce readiness. Industry wants to receive graduates skilled in modern aircraft and engines without expensive training programs, difficult for many Part 147 schools that lack modern engines and avionics on which to train. So the donation of a $2 million, 21st Century Pratt & Whitney PW6000 turbofan engine PW6000 to Charlotte Technical College near Punta Gorda, FL is a major plus. It is certainly a lot better than the Rolls Royce RB211 (EIS 1972) on which students at Aviation High School work.
In testimony before Congress, Aviation High School Principal Steve Jackson also noted regulatory reform is needed in order to enable students younger than 18 to participate in apprenticeship and internship programs. He indicated this would help increase their real-world experience working on modern technologies.
“We believe that such partnerships and accompanying internships help increase the number and improve the quality of aviation maintenance technicians,” he said. “These experiences need to be expanded and incorporated into schools at an earlier point in our students’ educational experience. Currently only students 18 years or older can gain access to work-based opportunities on our nation’s airports. Improving access for high school requires the FAA, industry partners and aviation maintenance technician schools to work more closely together to not only provide more flexibility to allow schools to adapt to the changing aviation technology, but to also create a pathway where more students can earn student apprenticeship type clearance to learn and work alongside certified, experienced aviation maintenance technicians at an earlier age. Ideally it would be wonderful if high school students were provided with on airport, on-the-job experiences with the guidance of the partnering company to help train students for the specific type of job openings available in a school’s surrounding area. These earlier connections between school and industry would also create those marketing opportunities for younger students to see the exciting work they could do in a high school that trains aircraft engineers.”
Guagenti agrees. “It’s tough for any of the schools or even a company like ours to have access to these new airframes and engines,” he said. “They’re expensive, so how do you get educated on those? It really has to be on the job. It needs to be facilitated either with an airline that has these fleet or engine types, or with an MRO that’s willing to invest in that capability. There’s clearly instructional general familiarizations and things you can do, but at the end of the day it’s still got to be hands-on.”
The accelerated digital transformation wrought by the retirement of many mid-to-end-of-life aircraft, will mean adding skills already in high demand for data collection and analysis to leverage OEM health monitoring systems.
The Vertical Flight Society (VFS) estimates a three-to-four-fold increase in workforce to support future vertical lift (FVL) alone in the next five years and a 10-fold increase support both FVL and unmanned air mobility over the next two decades.
“Power, platform and infrastructure are broadly the three cornerstones of eVTOL and UAM technical research including energy storage and electric drive,” said a Vertical Flight Society report, outlining the interdependency and complexity of making this new technology work. “Platform includes vehicle aeromechanics, propulsion, structures and operations while infrastructure includes transportation, manufacturing and grid insertion. Electric power is intimately tied to the platform through propulsion and power is also tied to infrastructure through the grid. Infrastructure is tied to the platform and safety is tied to it all. Cost impacts all. A number of emerging technologies disrupt these interdependencies such as fuel cells for power and AI for airspace, prop-rotors for agility, shrouds for noise, additive manufacturing for large-scale production, psycho-acoustics for community impact and multi-fidelity tool chains for design, synthesis and full life-cycle assessment. These technologies should be advanced and expanded from the unique perspective of e-VTOL and UAM applications.”
The activity to incorporate MRO’s into emerging technology is already happening, according to Guagenti. “You’re starting to see the emergence of unmanned vehicles, and there are new MRO centers being developed to support the expected demand for that type of an aircraft,” he said. “Clearly now what’s going on in space and all of these potential electric powered aircraft are pulling people. If you’re a young student and you’re going to an A&P school, I think there’s also the coolness factor of some of these emerging technologies.”
Intertwined in all of this is the enabling research which brings in agencies with expertise in aeronautics such as DOD and NASA as well as research universities, said VFS.
The Maintenance Challenge
A Volocopter white paper outlined the challenges, and announced it is establishing a strategic MRO concept to serve as the basis for future evaluation, auditing, and selection of MRO service providers to supplement Volocopter’s in-house capabilities.
“Key considerations relate to the appropriate setup of the maintenance hangars in terms of design and location to sustain worldwide operations,” said the company. “Additionally, all relevant spare parts for the aircraft components must be identified. The best strategic approach to MRO will be selecting and training MRO service providers based on a comprehensive understanding of MRO standards.”
It also noted the difference in maintaining multi-copters compared to conventional aircraft or helicopters included batteries, fewer spare parts, lighter, unconventional airframes and smaller and less complex aircraft. The company predicts they will require less maintenance per flight hour than traditional aircraft.
“A special challenge for UAM providers will be that existing MRO services do not have approval authority to maintain eVTOL vehicles,” the report said. “Notably, close proximity between MRO service stations and air taxi operations can avoid cost and time-consuming transport to the next maintenance facility. Therefore, Volocopter believes that it will be beneficial to have MRO locations very close to the globally distributed air taxi operations. This can be achieved with a proprietary MRO unit, close collaboration with existing players to jointly develop the required expertise, or with a hybrid solution.”
In addition, Embraer’s Eve Air Mobility indicated it was looking for many disciplines new to aircraft development including city planners and communicators for the critical job of introducing the new technology to the public.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge is not knowing skills needed for the future, according to the Institute for the Future, which is studying the impact robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) and Cloud Computing and they impact they will have on society by 2030.
“Over the next decade, emerging technologies will underpin the formation of new human-machine partnerships that make the most of their respective complementary strengths,” it said in a recent report. “These partnerships will enhance daily activities around the coordination of resources and in-the-moment learning, which will reset expectations for work and require corporate structures to adapt to the expanding capabilities of human-machine teams.”
MRO workforce development has always been a challenge worldwide but several forces are at work to ease the effort including changes to Part 147 in the US, work within the AAM industry to prepare for future needs, technology development to put workforce instructions in front of technicians virtually, significant progress in attracting new workers with programs in high school, the development of apprenticeships and internships and impressive progress in the MRO industry to create workforce development programs. While the challenges are great, the industry is rising to them.
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