Opinion: MRO Shop Capacity Issues Boil Down To Workforce Problem

MRO technician

HAECO Americas is working on employee retention by conducting “stay interviews” between employees and company leaders.

Credit: Lindsay Bjerregaard/AW&ST

Considering the current or future state of maintenance shop capacity requires recognizing that the answer (the quantity and flow of business supported by the maintenance market) has little to do with either the shop or its physical capacity. It is all about the people.

Upon returning from MRO Americas in 2018, I used this space in Inside MRO to reflect on an amazing panel from that year’s event: Five international industry executives discussing capacity and pricing (Inside MRO May 2018, p. MRO8). All they talked about was people.

As moderator, Jim Clarke summarized the points of his colleagues and, in the process, stressed this key point: “Capacity is not showing in your hangar footprint, but in the number of people that you have and their capabilities and skills.”

At the time, Clarke was HAECO Americas vice president of planning and performance. His assessment captured the reality of the moment and remains accurate six years later. None of us could have predicted the events that unfolded, particularly the bust-then-boom nature of the industry’s COVID-19 pandemic wave, yet we enter 2024 facing the same reality described by the 2018 panel.

“It still holds true,” says Clarke, now HAECO managing executive vice president of global engine support. After six years, a global health crisis and general upheaval in the global aviation market, both engine and airframe support facilities have more business waiting than their technical workforces can handle.

“You may only need a few people, but the right ones are as rare as hens’ teeth,” Clarke says.

Turning any technician into the “right” one requires more than proper training and culture. New technologies and tools may offset some burdens, and the last half-decade has provided no shortage of technology tools and techniques to lessen reliance on the human touch. However, the rules for maintenance on U.S.-­­­­registered aircraft—and those registered under the systems of every other developed government—require individuals to be directly responsible for the maintenance process. As a result, technicians, supervisors, executives and even government representatives are expected to meet the highest standards. These individuals must come from the same pool in which every technical industry in the world is swimming—and often those other industries are paying more. These people deserve common sense and useful knowledge gained through training and experience.

Describing HAECO’s current efforts to support its workforce, Clarke offers an interesting strategy to maintain the “culture” element. Through “stay interviews,” company leaders regularly check in with employees to see what is working and what needs improvement; the practice provides an excellent human factors management tool in addition to a mechanism for boosting retention.

“Once somebody leaves, they’re gone . . . so we try to stay in touch with what we’ve got,” Clarke says.

The only way to progress through the business capacity crisis is to understand the needs and opportunities of our people better.

Brett Levanto is vice president of operations of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, managing firm and client communications in conjunction with regulatory and legislative policy initiatives. He provides strategic and logistical support for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.