A Shortge of aircraft mechanics?

I was recently following an online discussion on the shortage of aircraft mechanics in the industry.  Most people that were involved in the discussion felt that good, qualified mechanics are difficult, if not impossible to find. This is a discussion that I am hearing more frequently these days as the problem continues to grow.

These discussions bring me back to around 20 years ago when the FAA held meetings to research what it viewed as an impending shortage of mechanics. As a result of these meetings, the FAA commissioned a “Blue Ribbon Panel” on the shortage of aircraft maintenance personnel. Its conclusion — there would be a severe shortage in upcoming years.

I have always felt that any shortage would be self-correcting as the demand for qualified mechanics rises. I figure it’s a supply and demand formula — as the need increases, employers will need to increase the amount that they pay in order to retain current mechanics and/or attract new ones. This, in turn, would attract more people into the industry, until the need for mechanics is filled. Seemed like a good theory to me.

But I must admit I have probably been flawed in my thinking. I didn’t factor in the idea that repair stations and airlines would find ways to cut labor costs without increasing the number of A&P mechanics they hired. For example, repair stations hire lots of workers who are supervised by A&Ps that oversee the bulk of the work in a maintenance facility. I also didn’t factor in the outsourcing to foreign entities that would underbid the work being done by most airlines. Nor did I take into account the economic difficulties the industry would face over the last several years resulting in the continued need to cut costs –— maintenance included.

Because of these factors, the salaries of mechanics have been slow to rise, and there’s not a lot of incentive for talented individuals to pursue a career in aviation maintenance. In addition, lots of talent is being lost to other industries.

For those mechanics that remain, the topic of fair compensation continues to be an issue.  The comparison between aircraft maintenance and automotive maintenance often surfaces. “Why is the shop rate at the Mercedes dealer higher than the shop rate at our shop?” I often hear.

I don’t think comparing Mercedes dealer shop rates to aviation shop rates is an apples-to-apples comparison. When someone brings their car to a Mercedes dealer — they may have one or two mechanics performing a repair that may take a few hours. When someone brings their aircraft in for an inspection, they are paying for perhaps three or four mechanics to not only repair, but inspect and overhaul — remove panels, make repairs, complete paperwork, etc. So a shop visit for a car may be several hours, but for an aircraft, it is often several hundred hours — making labor costs a much larger issue in aviation.

So how do we keep and attract new talent into the aircraft maintenance profession?  Part of the answer may involve not degrading the value of our services. This will require more education of our customers, better management of our maintenance operations and solutions that look past the immediate payback. 

For example, some managers/owners of maintenance facilities feel that they can be more competitive by reducing their costs — when instead, they should be focused on improving their quality. They incorrectly assume that an aircraft owner wants the cheapest maintenance, instead of the best maintenance. I don’t know too many owners that want to be at 25 thousand feet knowing they got the cheapest maintenance they could get!

There are aircraft maintenance facilities that see otherwise. They adopt the attitude that they will only hire the best mechanics, pay better salaries than anyone else and only perform the best maintenance with the highest level of safety — regardless of cost. The places I’ve seen adopt this mentality attract customers that want the same and don’t mind paying for it.  These facilities are thriving!

The solution to attracting more talent to this industry and making a career in aviation maintenance attractive is not just the responsibility of management. Some of the responsibility falls on the mechanics. Too many mechanics agree to work for subpar wages when they should be making good arguments that their skills are worth more than minimum wage. If it comes down to it, I believe it is more than acceptable to seek out employment in other industries using the skills learned in aviation.

Leaving aviation doesn’t mean someone has let down the aviation industry — it means that they have been let down by the industry itself.

Greg Napert, Proud to be an A&P

About D.O.M. Magazine

D.O.M. magazine is the premier magazine for aviation maintenance management professionals. Its management-focused editorial provides information maintenance managers need and want including business best practices, professional development, regulatory, quality management, legal issues and more. The digital version of D.O.M. magazine is available for free on all devices (iOS, Android, and Amazon Kindle).

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Joe Escobar (jescobar@dommagazine.com)
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