To ascertain the acuteness of the Middle East technical workforce shortage, Aviation Week and the Institute of Aeronautics at the University of Balamand in Lebanon surveyed the airline and independent maintenance, repair and overhaul providers—as well as training organizations in the region—to identify gaps in the supply of and demand for locally trained technicians.

Both surveys indicate that low salaries and highly complex regulations impede young talent from entering the MRO profession. As one MRO respondent wrote, “The salary is very low, the responsibility is very high.”

Both surveys also show evidence of industry partnering with academia by providing training materials, input into school curricula and some on-the-job training.

However, the survey points to some disconnects. The airline and independent MROs want highly skilled candidates with some experience, but training organizations in the region report that their three biggest challenges are: 1. Providing relevant on-the-job or practical training; 2. Ensuring graduates find jobs within a reasonable timeframe; and 3. Obtaining input and support from the industry.

In addition, only 67% of MRO respondents believe there is a shortage of aviation technicians and engineers, while no Middle East training professionals who answered the survey think regional trainers will be able to provide enough licensed engineers and technicians to meet the area's forecasted growth.

To put this in context, the Middle East commercial fleet will grow by about 80 aircraft in 2014 alone, with the MRO market value in the region expanding to $3.7 billion, according to Aviation Week's 2014 Commercial Aviation Fleet & MRO Forecast.

In addition, Boeing's latest 20-year pilot and technician outlook projects a need for 53,100 new technicians in the region to fuel the growth. This represents 9% of the 556,000 new technicians that will be required over the next two decades. Clearly, this is a global problem that cannot be solved singularly by poaching people from other regions.

Not surprisingly, 74% of airline and independent MRO survey respondents expect to recruit new engineering and technical personnel within the next 1-5 years. Adding the 21% who replied “not sure,” probably based on their role, the number of Middle East airline aftermarket companies that do not plan to hire is quite small. When asked how many technicians or engineers they plan to hire, 36% of individual respondents say they will try to employ more than 100 in the next 1-5 years. Only 29% plan to hire fewer than 10 people during this timeframe. That's a lot of demand within this region.

A piece of good news is that airline and independent MROs in the Middle East are pretty confident that their existing workforce meets today's needs. Survey results indicate 68% believe their current engineering and technical workforce is capable of fully supporting their operation satisfactorily; none said they are not capable, while 31.6% responded with “most of the time.”

Filling the gaps, however, is not easy, because 61% of MRO respondents say finding the right combination of qualities is difficult. When assessing what they look for, it becomes easy to understand why this number is so high. The survey found that 53% of MRO survey participants want a type-rated recruit with at least one year of experience (see chart), and they also think speaking multiple languages and having a university degree are very important, too.

The survey tried to identify how many MRO shops have conducted a formal analysis of their future talent needs. More than half say they have, while only 15% say they have not. But the fact that nearly one-third of airline and independent MROs have studies in progress indicates they are proactively evaluating this issue.

Developing a regional technical workforce—that can sustain growth—is a challenge in emerging regions, but one that provides higher-quality production and lower overall labor and training costs, if conducted successfully.

The survey reveals that 94% of MRO survey participants believe their organization should play an active role in attracting young talent to the aviation MRO profession. Yet, while the airline and independent MROs in the Middle East indicate that it is important to partner with schools, the educators want more input from the industry. Oussama Jadayel, chairman of the mechanical engineering department and director of the Institute of Aeronautics at the University of Balamand, thinks the problem is that the industry does not “have a mechanism to mobilize support,” or if they do, he says, “they lack the flexibility or the process.”

Academia and the MRO industry in the Middle East “all have to realize that we're in it together; they need our product and we need their support,” he says.

This workforce study was done as background for a workshop on the region's manpower challenge, which will take place on Feb. 4 during the MRO Middle East Conference in Dubai.

Tap the icon in the digital AW&ST MRO edition for a look at the projected fleet sizes of the top Middle East operators in 2018 and 2023, or go to AviationWeek.com/middleeastfleets