MROs Should Expand Horizons To Weather Workforce Shortage, Experts Say

MTU is looking how best to meet demand given ongoing pandemic disruption within its own operations.
Credit: MTU Maintenance

A perception problem and competition from other industries may be contributing to the MRO workforce shortage, according to panelists at Aero-Engines Europe in Stavanger, Norway. However, emerging technologies and international workforce recruiting may mitigate the situation.

Panelists noted that qualified technical talent was already being poached by other industries pre-pandemic, but the aviation industry downturn exacerbated the situation.

“[Before COVID-19], everybody talked about pilot shortages, but they didn’t really talk so much about mechanic shortages. But we felt it in Switzerland, especially for the technical fields,” says Caroline Vandedrinck, senior vice president business development, SR Technics. She notes that several factors have contributed to the situation, including low unemployment, demographic changes, low output of students with technical skills and overall reduced attractiveness of the aviation industry. “Who wants to work the graveyard shift? Who wants to work for salaries that are equal in other industries? Aerospace or aviation is no longer considered a sexy business.”

According to Christian Klein, executive vice president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, aftermarket companies would likely be willing to pay “above and beyond” for qualified workers, but “if the person doesn’t have the basic skills, you can’t put them to work as a productive worker. We’re constantly looking at the salary numbers.”

Klein believes aviation technical salaries are comparable to other technical industries, but the job comes with added pressures, such as the level of responsibility technicians are asked to take on and lifestyle issues such as being subject to drug and alcohol testing. Factors like these, he says, come into play when technical workers are considering whether to pursue jobs in MRO versus other industries such as automotive and construction.

Another aspect at play, says Klein, is a general public misconception about what working in the MRO industry entails. “One of the biggest problems we have is a lack of visibility. We take for granted that everybody knows our industry exists, but I spend a lot of time talking about the maintenance sector with external audiences, particularly in government, and there’s not a lot of recognition,” he says, noting that many people presume the only career opportunities entail working as a mechanic for an airline.  

“In the U.S. we’ve got six times more people working in technical jobs at repair stations than we have airline mechanics,” says Klein. “There’s been a big shift, but I don’t know that public awareness has caught up with that.”

In addition to efforts to publicize career opportunities and draw young people into the fold—something most aftermarket providers are doing at this point—Klein says companies should embrace emerging technologies to generate youth interest.

“We know that not everyone is going to be working on advanced air mobility, sustainable aircraft fuel, the new hybrid engines and things like that, but those are interesting, exciting opportunities,” says Klein. “And to the extent that different things motivate different generations of workers, there’s kind of that mantra that the younger generation of workers wants to feel a sense of fulfillment, and a sense that they’re doing something good for society and the environment.”

Vandedrinck says SR Technics is trying to prepare for the workforce shortage by working with schools and government agencies to promote the industry, while also promoting new technologies in the industry. “It’s not just getting your fingers dirty—we have high tech machines. We also are transforming our company with a new digital operation model,” she says. “Those are all things companies can use to promote themselves and promote the aviation industry.”

She also notes that companies may need to expand their geographic scope when recruiting new talent. “I think Europe and the Americas are probably facing the highest labor shortages as demand comes back up, where in other parts of the world there may be more technicians available,” says Vandedrinck. “We noticed pre-COVID, when we were adding people at a rapid pace, that we had to go outside of Switzerland and outside of Europe to find technicians. This leads me to believe that other parts of the world do have labor.”

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.