By Kathryn B. Creedy
The challenges of meeting the demand for aviation maintenance technicians just became a lot tougher, according to Aviation Institute of Maintenance Executive Vice President Joel English, who cautioned while there is theoretical capacity to produce enough technicians, there are roadblocks, because only about half graduate or pursue certification.
“The Boeing Technician Outlook this year forecast a need for 132,000 technicians within 20 years in North America alone,” he told members of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA) during its recent annual meeting. “We’ll need 700,000 worldwide. The good news that is down from the 2019 demand which was 192,000 in North America. Still, that means we need to graduate 6,600 new technicians annually. There are 166 FAA Certificated Part 147 schools being relied on to produce that 6,000 and the average size of these schools is about 100 students, so the numbers look good.”
But, he cautioned, they quickly whittle down because only about 40% (6,209) are graduating annually while fewer than 60% (3,725) of those become certified.
“Over 20 years that’s 74,500, only about half of what we need in North America,” he said. “That’s a big problem. Prior to Covid, 77% of certified technicians were over age 50 but Covid took a theoretical near-future problem and turned it into reality since companies relied on early retirements to reduce the number of furloughs required. The good news is the average age of technicians has declined over the past two years, but the number of available technicians has declined even more. Airlines and MROs don’t have enough technicians to keep up with the business they currently have and could be making millions more if they had enough technicians.”
Pre-Covid, the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), reported about $1.4 billion in business is left on the table each year owing to workforce shortages.
ATEC Pipeline Report Shows Declining Certifications, Increased Diversity
English’s speech came on the heels of the Aviation Technical Education Council’s (ATEC) latest Pipeline Report showing the strong momentum for producing more technicians in 2019 was slowed with Covid despite ATEC’s efforts to help members pivot from in-person to online learning.
“In 2020, the FAA issued 30% fewer airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanic certificates than it did the previous year—a devastating drop given the workforce development strides made in 2019 when more individuals achieved FAA mechanic certification than in any of the previous 17 years,” said ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire. “While the dip is likely an anomaly related to the COVID-19 pandemic’s ramifications, the long-term effect of the pandemic on the mechanic pipeline remains unclear. The 2021 Pipeline Report increases the urgency to the already-established priority of ensuring the pipeline is leveraging all available resources, including capacity in aviation maintenance technician schools (AMTS).”
ATEC reported the mechanic population is expected to increase 13% over the next 20 years, but ultimately fall 12,000 mechanics short of meeting commercial aviation needs in 2041. This optimistic scenario assumes pre-pandemic certification rates return.
“Despite the overall drop in newly certified A&P mechanics, 2020 did include some positive development. AMTS reported 11% of A&P graduates were female, compared to 2.6% representation in the broader mechanic population,” ATEC reported. “In addition, 40% of graduates represent a racial or ethnic minority. In addition, AMTS enrollments increased 5% in 2020—a drop over 2019’s increase, but still a welcome sign during an historic downturn.”
English reported AIM women students have quintupled as the school now has five times the national average of female tech students.
CT&E, Community Colleges Only Part of the Answer
With the growth of Career & Technical Education (CT&E) and community colleges fielding AMT curricula, an increasing number of resources are becoming available to train technicians. However, for community colleges, English explained, the discipline is only one of any number offered and, unless enrollment is robust, such programs are likely to be cut.
“Community colleges look at the costs of these specialist programs and some close nursing and aviation maintenance programs because they cost $15,000 to educate students while all they need is a desk for English majors,” said English. “You have to have 314 enrollments to make money on it.”
Some colleges, such as the Olive Harvey College on the south side of Chicago have teamed with corporate backers such as AAR Corp which developed programs to meet specific needs. But it also illustrates how important industry is in not only creating these programs but retaining the resource for their pipeline needs.
“One of the best things industry can do is partner with aviation maintenance schools to instill their identity among the students,” said English, pointing to AAR’s Eagle Pathway Program as an example. The program provides on-site mentoring, an externship course, $15,000 in loan repayments if employed, $2,500 tuition and other perks. Similar programs from other companies increases the pipeline for employment. English also noted United has a similar program with Teterboro School of Aeronautics while Piedmont Airlines is now paying tuition as a partial grant secured by working for the company for a certain number of years.
“Companies are putting their money where their mouths are in developing the next generation workforce,” he said. “I recommend companies work with the closest AMT school. You don’t necessarily have to donate money, just provide the brand recognition for students so they’ll become your future employees.”
He also pointed to the Launch Partnership for Veterans using the Part 65 Skill-Bridge Program which includes pre-graduation screening and hiring, a core team to collaboratively create student programs, tuition discounting and student mentoring. Viper Transitions is a similar program designed for Veterans as is Veteran Air Warriors, whose representative, Austin Kirkwood, spoke during RACCA, noting the scholarships take veterans through their private pilot license.
For both junior and senior high school programs, students complete 400 hours of general content preparing them to sit for the exam and then transfer to any AMT school, according to English.
Barriers High for Increasing Educational Capacity
To develop a new program is takes two years for the certification process alone, reported English. “There is also between $50,000 and $500,000 in equipment needs and $500,000 to $2 million in build-out costs,” he said. “All faculty must be certified A&Ps and, to qualify for Title IV Funds accreditation is needed from the state and Veterans Administration and that requires two additional years of instruction.”
Also a board member for ATEC, English cited the work the organization did in reforming Part 147 achieving a Congressional mandate for FAA to reform Part 147 which passed last December and has yet to be implemented. Reform means curriculum will be less restrictive and could ultimately accommodate the inclusion of emerging technologies, especially in propulsion.
“The new regulations focus on outcomes rather than prescribing instructional methods and hours on topics,” he said. “It also means aviation maintenance schools and universities can open satellite campuses at local high schools such as the partnership created when Clemson University adopted the Choose Aerospace Curriculum to encourage high school programs.”
English called on companies to take a two-pronged approach – community youth programming and support for political leaders who can help expand the pipeline.
“If all of us commit to new programming and youth awareness, we could be on pace to produce more technicians,” he said. “We need to double the number we are producing every year over the next 20 years to get to where we need to be.”