Fast 5: The State of MRO Workforce Post-Pandemic

Mike Guagenti, CEO, Launch Technical Workforce Solutions

As recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic begins, the MRO industry’s workforce needs are ramping up dramatically. Mike Guagenti, CEO of Launch Technical Workforce Solutions, talks with Lindsay Bjerregaard about how the pandemic impacted the MRO workforce and whether companies will be able to find enough qualified talent moving forward.
What will MRO workforce recruitment be like in 2021? Are MROs and airlines hiring back technical workforce that was furloughed or laid off during the pandemic?

We started to see the momentum building in the late fourth quarter last year. Our order book started to increase and the number of starts just amplified through Q1. We have today probably more orders than we’ve had, or equal or more than we were pre-pandemic, in terms of what the demand is. It’s still just a very tight market.

I think a lot of the layoffs, furloughs or early retirements that the airlines pushed through really focused on the more tenured mechanics and you would think that those mechanics might’ve flooded the workforce or the market with some good talent. Our experience is that most of the folks that took early retirement either indeed retired or were kind of waiting out a job transition to do something different. The younger workforce that was furloughed certainly became available, but not in any great waves that you might have expected. I think after 9/11 it produced more talent in the contractor workforce, but this series of events really didn’t have that effect for us and for companies like ours.

Has the pandemic led to more aviation maintenance technicians taking positions outside of commercial airlines and MROs?

The market was tight through the pandemic and there was an opportunity for people to take positions in some of the traditional areas that don’t get as much activity, such as the business jet market. Certainly, the cargo market consumed a lot of capacity and all of the storage providers where these airplanes were put down required a pretty large team to maintain the minimum requirements in the storage, ultimately to then be maintained to go back into service. We’re seeing a lot of that now. Early in the pandemic it was airplanes dropping in by the hundreds a week into these locations, and that caused a demand for talent. Now we’re seeing a lot of those aircraft coming out of the storage and there’s quite a bit of work that needs to be done with return to service. The talent that moved into those markets has really been there for more than a year and until these fleets come out of the desert, there’s still going to be a pull into those areas.

We saw the similar effect with cargo. The amount of cargo traffic has exploded. Those MROs and the operators that focus on cargo were able to add talent during the peak of the pandemic. Now it’s being compounded by the fact that the airlines are adding more capacity to their fleet schedules. They’re flying more routes, they’re adding more traveling passengers, and so that’s putting pressure on two things.

One is some of the airlines are hiring back. We are seeing that those that were furloughed are either being provided opportunity to come back or they’re bringing in new talent. In addition, the MROs that traditionally support the commercial airlines are committing schedules into their facilities to do the maintenance that had been pent up while these airplanes were parked. I think that the airlines tended to operate that way during the pandemic—trying to burn as much green time on the airplanes that they had and put the ones in deserts that needed to go through a more robust maintenance schedule, and so what you have now is a lot of deferred maintenance that needs to be pushed through these MRO facilities and certainly some of the airline facilities. That’s adding more pressure to the need for workers, especially as the MROs laid off a good number of their staff during the pandemic. Trying to reload talent is putting a lot of pressure on the market.

If you look outside of commercial, the other thing is there’s been a number of big programs on the government side that has required a lot of talent, mostly contract talent as well. And then clearly the Boeing 737 MAX program and having that number of aircraft stored and then now starting to come back to market has created some additional demands out there that in the past, pre-pandemic, really didn’t exist as extensively as it does today.

We’re also seeing a little bit of the percolation of the manufacturing space. We support quite a bit of the supply chain for new aircraft production, whether it be with the OEMs or the tier suppliers. With both Airbus and Boeing cutting production so extensively during the pandemic, that reduced the need for people, but as Boeing, Airbus and even Embraer and Gulfstream are starting to firm up their order books and production schedules, we’re seeing the ripple effects down through the supply chain of people starting to say, ‘We’re going to need talent as we start to commit to production schedules.’ You have all those factors coming together and there’s definitely greater demand right now than there is supply of technicians and mechanics

Are recent A&P graduates staying in the industry or are they looking elsewhere for employment? Did the pandemic shake their confidence in the stability of MRO careers?

Over the last 5-10 years there has been a migration of the A&P graduates being poached by other industries. We partner with several of the school and we see the statistics and the data, and we see where those candidates go. Those skillsets are transferable and there’s a lot of emerging industries that are attractive to these candidates, so one of the reasons I think that’s happening is just career progression and wage progression, and in particular in the MRO and airline space it’s been difficult. The airline/MRO economics kind of dictate what those entities can pay for talent and it’s fairly limiting when you compare to some of these other industries.

The other issue that’s really changed a lot lately is that, in terms of around five years ago, MROs and airlines wouldn’t take recent graduates. They would maybe, with their own internal programs, take a handful here and there every year, but for the large part our clients were looking for several years of commercial experience before they would bring on a mechanic into their facility. This is an area where we’ve seen a really significant shift post-pandemic. We’re talking to our customers daily about this. There’s just not enough talent in the market to ignore these graduates, and also military veterans.

Does Launch have any initiatives in place to provide better career opportunities for recent graduates and military veterans?

We have two programs that we’re really excited about. One is a mature program called Working Heroes, which takes veterans coming out of the military and transitions them with our clients into the commercial aviation workspace. Just prior to the pandemic, we celebrated our 1,000th veteran transitioning through our program. That program is designed to help our clients build talent. They stay with us for about six months as a Launch employee and the goal is for them to go back, get their license and/or be offered a full time job at one of our client locations. That’s been a really great breakthrough because, just like A&P graduates, the commercial MROs in the past have had a hesitation hiring veterans, even though veterans touch the same core fleet types. Their transition path is more around systems, paperwork, processes and protocols, which is easily transferable, but it takes a program like ours to help set those veterans up for success.

We’re really trying to do the same thing with the A&P schools. We’ve got some very strategic conversations going on right now, but it’s the same concept of taking the A&P graduates and adding some additional OJT (on the job training) programming to allow them to be successful migrating early on into an MRO or an airline. The big gap there was the curriculum taught in the A&P schools is very dated and it had a shortfall of the real skills that these candidates need to master when they’d step into an MRO or an airline, and so our program is really designed to bridge that gap. We call it internally our center of excellence and we’re working on this with some schools to not only add additional curriculum and skillset development for the students coming out of the schools, but also to embed instructors or supervisors on the job site and help that transition, similar to our Working Heroes program, to help these candidates transition.

At the end of the day there’s just not enough talent in the market. The demographics have changed and we’re losing more talent every year than we’re adding. There needs to be a game changer, and it revolves around bringing talent into our industry.

With all of the COVID-related fleet changes and new engine and airframe technologies coming out, what role will new capabilities training and reskilling take on in the near future?

These are the things that are not being taught necessarily in the schools and need supplemental instruction, and a lot of that needs to happen on the job. It’s tough for any of the schools or even a company like ours to have access to these new airframes and engines. They’re obviously very expensive, so how do you get educated on those? It really has to be on the job. It needs to be facilitated either with an airline that has these fleet or engine types, or with an MRO that’s willing to invest in that capability. There’s clearly instructional general familiarizations and things you can do, but at the end of the day it’s still got to be hands-on.

One of the interesting things we’re also seeing when you talk about fleet changes and technologies is you’re starting to see the emergence of unmanned vehicles, and there are new MRO centers being developed to support the expected demand for that type of an aircraft. Clearly now what’s going on in space and all of these potential electric powered aircraft are pulling people. If you’re a young student and you’re going to an A&P school, I think there’s also the coolness factor of some of these emerging technologies.

All these things add to a dynamic of the industry being short on talent, which we knew pre-pandemic. With the issue around COVID, some of our clients thought this was going to be the silver lining and they’d be able to get all this talent, and it’s just not the case. It’s arguably tougher now and will be going forward.

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.