Building an Aviation Maintenance Workforce the Toyota Way

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The aviation industry could potentially learn from industries such as automotive when it comes to attracting and building a skilled technical workforce.

According to Brett Levanto, vice president of operations at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), the aircraft maintenance industry shares with other industries a common challenge in building a future multi-skilled workforce. At the recent ARSA Symposium, the National Association of Manufacturers’ Vice President of Workforce Solutions, Gardner Carrick, shared one very successful approach to overcoming this challenge.

Toyota started its Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) because its U.S. MRO units “had too many grey hairs, not enough skills coming in and the age demographics were too high,” Carrick explained. The global automaker wanted multi-skilled repair workers, plus two other elements.

One was ‘soft skills’—17 professional behaviors in all, including professional dress, reliable attendance and good interpersonal communication. Students had to show up every morning at 8:00 am and deliver a presentation to a circle of fellow students. And they had to organize themselves, learning teamwork from each other.

Next, Toyota wanted students to learn its production system, later termed LEAN, which included a safe culture, structured problem solving and machine reliability.

FAME inducted apprentices into three days of work and two days of classes at a partner college. Apprentices were typically paid $15 per hour, enough to cover school and living expenses. To teach financial responsibility, students used these wages to pay for tuition, books and fees themselves. All days ran from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. The program resulted in 85% of students graduating and being placed in manufacturing jobs.

By 2018, FAME had grown to 20 chapters with 300 companies participating, and Toyota wanted to outsource the program. NAM and Carrick took over and have expanded FAME to 400 companies in 35 regions.

Carrick dubs FAME an “apprentice-like” program and “the best example of manufacturing education I have seen.” He acknowledges that German apprenticeships are “the gold standard,” but says this approach has not been practical in the U.S.

What makes FAME so successful? Carrick credits dedicated trainers responsible for students learning the job, “not just standing over their shoulders.” Companies also deploy a mentor to ensure non-technical skills and behaviors are learned as well. For the college portion, students also get a “FAME mom” to monitor students and show the program’s commitment to them. Students can never cut class nor earn less than a C average in any class. Introduction of the FAME moms boosted retention from 65-85%.

FAME now attracts 30% women to the program. According to Carrick, recruitment is done by companies, which he says are much more effective than recruitment by colleges. Carrick says parents pay much more attention to companies seeking students in the five-semester program than they would to college pitches. Successful FAME graduates, he adds, are also very persuasive recruiters.

A Brookings Institution study reported that FAME graduates averaged $60,000 a year initially. That is only $10,000 less than the median starting wage of a Harvard graduate, after four years of a list price $56,000-a-year education. Moreover, Toyota reports that these workers move into team-leader positions much faster than other mechanics. Even during COVID-19, all participating companies thus stuck with the program. Some colleges say FAME has changed their entire approach to career education.

Can this approach apply to aircraft mechanics? Levanto cites an ARSA survey that found less than half of shop mechanics have FAA certification. “The only employees who require certification … are those who are supervising and those authorized to approve for return to service,” says Levanto. He adds that shops do require a variety of technical skills, as well as the soft skills and behaviors that FAME also builds.