The adage goes that good people are hard to find, and many commercial MRO facilities are reporting difficulties filling maintenance positions with skilled workers. Given the outlook for MRO technicians needed throughout the aviation industry, it appears that they have reason to worry.

A Growing Need for Talent

According to Boeing's November 2011 market outlook, the number of aircraft in service will double by 2030, and the number of maintenance workers to support those aircraft will have to grow by at least 140,200 workers. The global aviation workforce must add about 650,000 maintenance technicians by 2030 to satisfy these fleet additions, yet some aviation schools say the industry is losing recent graduates to the energy, power and automotive industries. MROs are concerned about the possible effects of a skilled worker shortage, but could they be doing more to attract and retain workers?

The Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) thinks so. At its annual symposium in March, Executive Vice President Christian Klein announced that in a recent survey of ARSA members, skilled worker shortages tie for second with high fuel prices and the FAA as the most serious long-term threat to the aviation maintenance. The 93 respondents among ARSA's 443 members voted over-regulation as the highest threat.

Despite the priority that the repair stations put on workforce issues, ARSA says “very few” of its members are taking appropriate actions to attract, train and retain employees. About 14% of repair stations responding to the survey say their company serves on an advisory board at a technical school, and 25.8% participate in on-campus recruitment. Just over 5% grant scholarships to current students, 25% hire student interns and 8.6% have a mentoring program.

Fifty-seven percent of the ARSA members surveyed say they have had difficulty filling technical positions in the past two years, and 65% expect their business and markets to grow in the coming year. So, where are these desperately needed new-hires?

Raymond Thompson, president of the Aviation Technician Education Council and associate dean of Western Michigan University's College of Aviation, says he has heard about skill shortages for the past decade but has yet to see one. However, he thinks a dearth of skilled laborers will affect MROs and regional airlines in the next few years, after technician retirements increase and the industry absorbs any proposed American Airlines layoffs.

Thompson says attracting skilled workers is a multifaceted challenge. He thinks it is exacerbated in part by an FAA-mandated A&P curriculum focused heavily on general aviation, instead of airlines, and little overall marketing of the aviation maintenance industry to potential students.

Paying a Price

Thompson and other experts cite starting wages for MRO technicians in the U.S. as a possible deterrent to new talent. ARSA respondents indicate the average starting hourly wage for entry-level technicians is $12.92, and the median starting wage is $13.50. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2011, the estimated mean hourly wage for the full spectrum of aircraft mechanics and technicians working in the U.S. is $26.20; avionics technicians earn a mean wage of $26.15 per hour.

Amy Kienast Linderman, national director of business relations at the Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology (MIAT), says the aviation industry is not only experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, but it is also losing graduates with A&P licenses to the energy and power industries. Because recently matriculated A&Ps have a diverse range of skills in hydraulics, electronics and pneumatics, they can usually move right into jobs working on a wind turbine or in the marine industry. Linderman says the benefits packages in the power and energy industries tend to be superior to those offered in aviation, as are starting wages. MIAT A&P graduates earn $14-18 per hour at entry-level jobs within the aviation field, while the energy industry offers starting salaries of $17-25 per hour, says Linderman.

A Global Concern

The conversation about workforce development at the ARSA convention focused on operators in North America, but retaining mechanics is an issue that permeates borders. Many MROs around the world are finding that they need to bolster their training to find the right people. One example is Air Berlin, a carrier that hopes to start training more third-party customers. Tobias Hundhausen, senior VP, production for Air Berlin Technik (see interview pg. 13), says that the MRO's apprenticeship program is growing. Germany has a unique “dual system” educational program, which allows students to train at a company to learn technical skills and earn a wage while attending vocational school.

Hundhausen says that about 30 new students enter the program each year, contributing to a total of about 90 students who take classes annually. When asked whether Air Berlin is experiencing skills shortages, he says “we are not quite sure yet.” However, over the next few months it will know if the 30 mechanics who matriculate from the apprenticeship program will be enough to fill new slots. As for the wage issue, Hundhausen said he has noticed that mechanics are willing to work night shifts to receive higher pay.

While attracting mechanics is important, Hundhausen says it is also imperative to teach high potential new hires management skills. Air Berlin started a two-year program, aimed at new hires with university degrees in areas like engineering and business administration, which lets them move to various positions within Air Berlin during their first two years at the company, staying at each department for 3-6 months.

Going further east, FL Technics in Vilnius, Lithuania is also making a name for itself in the training sector. Dainius Sakalauskas, deputy head of FL Technics Training, says that a unique opportunity exists for the company to train former Soviet republics, Russia, African countries and the Asia-Pacific region. At the moment, FL Technics is using hotels in Russia to teach theoretical material, but it plans to add a facility there soon with the goal of training students for its new hangars in Ulyanovsk, about 528 mi. from Moscow. The first hangar there is set to be built by 2013. It also holds theoretical courses in Tyumen, Russia and Alma Ata Kazakhstan, and both theoretical and on-the-job training in Vilnius, Kiev and London.

Sakalauskas says that if FL Technics only supported the needs of its county's own aviation needs, then perhaps there would be enough skilled hires to keep up with demand. But FL Technics garners almost all of its training business from outside of Lithuania and it supports 32 line maintenance stations, with recent additions in locations as varied as Bangladesh, Malta and Poland.

Sakalauskas cites a mismatch of supply and demand for skilled workers in these emerging markets that are so important to FL Technics' plan for growth. While FL Technics is attracting a significantly different market than U.S.-based MROs, he says that he thinks there will be a “huge problem” finding skilled workers in the future.

“I don't think there are enough students,” says Sakalauskas. “If we were to work only in Lithuania and Baltic states, maybe it would be enough for us. But our market is global, so we need more people.”