GAO Finds Only Mixed Evidence Of U.S. Mechanic Shortage, Urges FAA Reforms

A February report to the U.S. Congress by the Government Accountability Office found only mixed evidence on the much-discussed mechanic shortage, but urged FAA to increase collaboration and data efforts to develop what GAO called “a robust, diverse,” mechanic workforce.

GAO analysts say labor shortages are usually indicated by low unemployment rates, increases in wages and increases in employment. From 2013 through 2018, according to Labor Department data, mechanic unemployment averaged 2.1%, versus 5.3% for all workers. Median real mechanic wages rose 1.2% per year, the same as for all workers. And total mechanic employment was flat over the five years, versus a 2.1% annual increase for all workers.

The unemployment rate seemed to indicate hiring difficulties. So did the rise in real wages, but not more so than for all workers. And GAO noted there were some years when wages actually declined. Further, the change in employment was not consistent with hiring difficulties, GAO said. But here too, the numbers fluctuated greatly from year to year. 

Nevertheless, trouble may be on the horizon. According FAA data, GAO estimated that over half of roughly 330,000 certificated mechanics in December 2018 were between 50 and 70 years old, and 97% were men.

The auditors noted that FAA plans to issue a final rule on the curriculum for aviation maintenance technician schools toward the end of 2020 and testing standards afterwards.

But GAO said FAA lacks the kind of data other agencies have to promote development of an adequate force of mechanics. “Without routinely analyzing its own data or leveraging others’ data, FAA may not have certain information it needs to track or ensure progress toward its workforce development goals,” GAO reported.

The Aviation Technician Education Council disputes GAO’s conclusion that the mechanic shortage was unproven. ATEC says its own data in the upcoming 2020 Pipeline report shows beginning hourly rates for aviation tech school graduates are rising.

In any case, “the shortage may not be upon us now, but it soon will be,” ATEC says, citing a 2017 Oliver Wyman report indicating supply-demand gaps in 2023.