It has been nearly three years since the last time we wrote on the subject of a workforce shortage of trained aircraft technicians. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
First, the aviation industry absorbed the worst shock since the recession of 2009. The COVID-19 pandemic began nearly two years ago, wreaking havoc throughout global economies. Airlines laid off tens of thousands of workers in 2020, with a perspective that appeared pretty grim at the time. Still, air travel has come roaring back in the past year, notably air freight, which is expected to continue rising at unprecedented levels.
Revisiting Pre-Pandemic Levels
When we wrote on this topic back in early 2019, the major staffing issues with finding personnel could be summed up by stating that the threshold to entry is higher than most people are interested in partaking. And this is entirely unchanged; despite neverending blows against the industry as a whole, the agencies that regulate the training requirements have yet to produce any measures that will allow people to more easily become licensed techs. Of course, in this, we are not suggesting that people off of the street start turning wrenches without vetting. No, we are still talking about the waste of resources of letting those hundreds of thousands of aircraft maintainers from the military walk away from the field with all of their years of experience in tow.
Aviation has changed radically since then. Since thousands of staff were laid off last year, demand for the airlines has surged, catching the airlines in a severe bind. As of mid-2020, most aircraft maintenance technician schools were suspended. Those that were open witnessed graduation rates drop by a quarter.
It should go without saying that this poses severe problems to the industry: it takes a minimum of 30 months to take a student off the street and meet the minimum requirements to become an airframe and powerplant mechanic in the U.S.
So, assuming you could take a class of prospective students beginning on January 1st, 2022, you would get a freshly minted batch of A&P mechanics…in June of 2024, at the very earliest. A lot can go on between then and now, considering what we have witnessed in just 21 months.
What Does the Prognosis Look Like Now?
A few different sources are reliable for this kind of information. First, the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics is usually pretty reliable. For example, they anticipate a 12 percent growth in the aircraft mechanics and service technicians market from 2020-2030.
Boeing’s world-famous market outlook paints a similar picture, looking at a two-decade timeframe. The global demand for technicians over through 2040 looks to be 249,000, with over half of those being needed in North America.
North America is looking at the demand of 132,000 trained technicians, which breaks down to roughly 6,600 new technicians per year. Mind you, the 30-month minimum window is still in play.
What is Holding People Up?
We have to understand that not all things are equal. Still, we must, for the sake of simplicity, assume that we are taking prospective students who have no background in aviation here, just ordinary people off of the street. In light of this, a career in aircraft maintenance is actually becoming a sort of tough sell. There is nothing concrete in this assessment, but our best guess is that most prospective technicians who are actively entering the field are coming in because they have past experience in aircraft maintenance through military service. They know what they are doing and what they are getting into.
What Is the Competition?
It sounds terrible, but we have to look at potential technicians as a sort of commodity. Again, going back to our baseline of prospective students with no aviation background, it is essential to think about who these people are. They are probably interested in and have an aptitude for mechanical and technical work.
All industrial maintenance forms are somewhat similar once you get past the surface-deep differences. The same aptitude and problem-solving skills work whether you are a power-lineman, a diesel mechanic, a welder, or an aircraft technician.
In short, these are among the industries that will compete for aircraft technicians. Now, on the bright side, the median pay for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and techs is quite a bit higher than most of the other mechanical disciplines that are essentially the competition. So let's take a look at the competitors to get a feel for how we as a community can reel them into aviation. Also, we need to discuss the hindrances to aviation because there certainly are some valid concerns.
Oil and Gas
The oil and gas industry continues to grow, with technicians in this discipline seeing a rise of nine percent over the next decade. The pay is decent but less than the median pay for aircraft techs.
One similarity that oil and gas workers have with aviation is that the work is usually found in specific areas of the country. Likewise, the best paying aircraft maintenance work will be found around airports. This is the one drawback of the aircraft technician shortage that will prove the hardest to fix.
Powerline Installation and Repair
Another vocation requires only a high school diploma and a hard work ethic. Oh, and comfort with heights and extremely high voltage.
The median pay for linemen tips the scales slightly over aircraft technicians, but this may be a slight misnomer. Linemen frequently respond to natural disasters across the nation and earn enormous amounts of per diem and overtime. Overall, there does not appear to be much potential for growth in this field, but its strength is that they are employed everywhere.
Automotive techs are probably the closest work performed, although the pay is certainly not on-par. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is no projected growth in the field. The median pay is roughly $20,000 lower than aircraft technicians.
The one component of alluring automotive work is that most mechanically inclined people have already done it. In contrast, it is hard to even touch an airplane. So there is familiarity in what you know. Oh, car shops are abundant everywhere, so work is continuously available.
There is a boom right now with demand for truckers, the likes of which we have not seen. However, for 2021 alone, there is a shortfall of around 80,000 drivers, and the pay is absolutely unreal right now. This is probably not sustainable, but acquiring a Class A commercial driver's license is much more accessible than an A&P certificate. Despite pay jumps of up to forty percent, the shortage of drivers persists, making it a very appealing career path for entry-level workers who may entertain passing on mechanical work to drive instead. Who can blame them? They know they can have a job as soon as they pass their CDL test and will make well above what the same job would have just one or two years ago.
As driving jobs explode due to demands on the logistics industry, so do those of the diesel mechanics. However, unlike the automobile mechanical trades, diesel technician demand will grow by about eight percent over the next decade.
How Can Aviation Bring In Top Talent?
The only question that matters is how the aviation industry can pull talent away from the other disciplines and get it here instead? First, we have to address why they are not interested, especially why they are actively disenrolling from A&P programs.
The 30-month on-the-job training period is ridiculous. As the old adage says, it is ridiculous because the A&P is nothing more than a license to learn. If it is just a gateway in itself, then why does the FAA mandate two-and-a-half years of hands-on training?
There is no such regulatory requirement by the departments of transportation for diesel mechanics or auto mechanics. They go through a trade school program (usually shorter than the A&P requirement) and then hit the ground running. Their trade school certificate is also a license to learn, but it is not a barrier to entry. Plenty of mechanics are hired on merit and experience alone with no certificate. But you cannot do this in aviation.
There must be severe discussions moving forward to reduce the burden of becoming a certified mechanic. For one thing, the military is a fantastic resource for experienced mechanics. Yet, they cannot immediately transition over to working on civilian aircraft, even if they worked on an identical airframe in the military. For example, a P-8A or a C-40 is a commercial Boeing 737s. Yet, a career military technician on these aircraft still must have an A&P to work on the 737 for a commercial MRO.
Air traffic is picking back up very quickly, and with that comes along a renewed demand for both cabin crew and aircraft technicians. However, it seems that it is still difficult to bring in top talent for aircraft maintenance. The regulatory framework for becoming an aircraft technician remains prohibitive, and prospective talent is likely looking elsewhere at careers with a much lower entry threshold but retaining competitive pay. The only way to fix this is to make aircraft maintenance credentialing more accessible. If we don't, the aircraft technician crisis will only worsen.
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