Where Have all the Mechanics Gone?
By Patrick Kinane
We have talked about the mechanic shortage for more than 10 years. This is incongruent to the airline layoffs which gives the appearance that there is an excess of aircraft mechanics who are being dumped on the market.
If you ask the FAA to provide an accurate count of how many active A&P certificates are out there, they cannot provide it. WHAT? They can give you accurate figures on the number of active pilots by the number of medical certificates issued and they can give you accurate figures on the number of IAs out there because they have to be renewed every two years. However, an A&P certificate is issued and that’s it. The recent FAA requirement to have all certificates transferred from the paper type to the plastic type might have the additional benefit to get a head count, but I don’t know if that is part of the FAA’s plan. Regardless, that will not get an accurate head count of active A&Ps, only the number of A&Ps alive that respond to the demand for a new card. As of now all figures are extrapolated from how many certificates were issued from day one to the present and by determining an attrition rate.
A look at the numbers
Let’s go with that data that is available. In a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Labor, it was estimated that there is a projected 11 percent annual increased need for aircraft mechanics and service technicians for the period from 2006 to 2016, equating to 13,000 technicians and an eight percent increase (or 1,300 in avionics technicians) yearly. The review of student population in aviation maintenance programs shows a declining student base from 24,000 in 1991 to 10,000 in 1997 and recent certificate activity of only 6,400 certificates issued by the FAA in 2004 compared to 14,000 in 1994. We are working at a deficit. As of 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, estimated there were 138,000 aviation, avionics and service technicians actively employed in the aviation industry. Air Transport World, a magazine dedicated to the aviation industry, estimates a seven to 10 percent attrition rate in aviation technicians, which equates to 9,660–13,800 leaving the industry at the 2006 level. The aviation maintenance student population in 2004 of 6,400 technicians is not adequate to fill the lower end of the attrition rate estimate of seven percent leaving the industry, let alone the proposed 11 percent growth.
Because aviation maintenance student growth is declining, it cannot feed the school structure designed to support them. Along with the decline in students, there was a corresponding 13 percent decline in schools that provide aircraft maintenance training from 185 in 2000 to 161 in 2008.
The decline in aviation maintenance student enrolment followed by the reduction of schools providing that training exacerbates a further decline in newly certificated A&Ps.
If you ask the average grade-school-age kid where aircraft mechanics work, they will say “the airlines.” This is what they see. They get more pragmatic when they get older and begin to think about what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. Male students in the late high school and college levels are primarily concerned with income prospects and social status, whereas female students in the same age group put career fulfillment at the top. In either case, if their view of a career in aviation maintenance is grounded on their earlier perception of the airlines, all they have to do is read in the newspapers about the consolidation and shrinkage of the airlines and personnel layoffs to make a decision not to choose aviation maintenance as a career path as it doesn’t fill the income prospects, social status or fulfillment criteria.
Getting the Information out there
We are not going to fix the problem by correcting the airlines chaos but by getting information out there to the kids at an early age through teachers, counselors and parents that aviation maintenance is not inextricably linked to airlines. What is the world of aviation maintenance? I don’t know if anyone has ever really mapped out what aviation maintenance is and in what directions it can take you.
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty — literally. This won’t work with this audience, but if you weren’t in the aviation business what do you envision when I say aircraft mechanic, aircraft technician and pilot? If you ranked them in professional standing from one to 10 with 10 being the highest, what would it be? I bet that mechanic would be in the lower quartile with technician approaching mid quartile and the pilot nearing 10. Pilots are ranked with doctors and lawyers in professional standing. I don’t have data to back this up, but I would venture to say that there are more aircraft mechanics with pilot certificates then pilots with mechanic certificates. So what happened?
In the airlines it started after WWII. There used to be a third crewmember, the flight engineer, who was a mechanic in the cockpit. This kind of bridged a relationship gap between the mechanic and the pilot. In the same type survey as above, if you asked the general population about the professional standing of a flight engineer, the name alone would elevate their status above technician. With demands for all flight crew members to be pilots and later the advent of the two-man cockpit, that bridge disappeared and the gap between pilot and mechanic was definitive and wider to those in the inside and outside of the industry.
Trade Vs. Profession
That explains the airline part, but what about the rest of aviation? To put it bluntly, we have become gentrified. In all fairness to our parents, they wanted to see their children do better. What parent wouldn’t? Our parents encouraged us to get an education and enter a profession (not a trade). But isn’t a trade a profession? Yes, but those in the trades are not considered professionals. (Sorry, arguing with myself again.) You even see this in some applications asking work status, choose one: unemployed, student, retired, professional, trade. In the spirit of expediency, let’s blame our parents for this problem. They are an easy target and it isn’t going to require a lot of effort on our part in finding a root cause, let alone a solution. As admirable as their aspirations to better their children’s lives might be, it is also is not helping us as a society. Bang, done — they created this, now let them fix it. I’ll sit back and criticize. (Oops, I mean “observe.”)
Although I am looking at this with an aircraft maintenance focus, Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobsand John Ratzenberger from Cheersand Made in Americahave reported the need for skilled workers on a more macro level. We are not filtering people into the “trades” where there are an abundance of jobs available but no takers. (Correction — I should say no takers with the requisite skill sets.) There are jobs in aviation maintenance as well but no takers with the proper certification, skill set, willingness to relocate, etc.
Selling a reality
Ah, the thrill of aviation maintenance. What are we to do? We need to sell the profession of aviation maintenance to the public. The name change from “A&P mechanic” to “aircraft maintenance technician” and failed attempt at “aircraft maintenance engineer” is not the answer. We have the National Aviation Maintenance Technician Day on May 24 and numerous states have followed suit. Here is the problem with all that: if perception doesn’t match reality, disappointment soon follows.
I went into a Los Angeles motorcycle shop (store) that had clothing and a lot of old motorcycles including a couple of 1970s Ducati singles like the two I am restoring. I was excited and got to talking with the store owner about my Ducatis and models and what I am doing and he finally stopped me before I carried on too far and said, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I sell the image, not the reality.” I left disappointed. That’s L.A., where make believe is the No. 1 industry. What I am getting at is that if you hype the aviation maintenance profession beyond what it really is, you are setting students up for future disappointment and job dissatisfaction.
Then you are always going to get those, as myself, who just love aviation and aviation maintenance. After a stint in the military I quit my job as a carpenter to go to school and take a series of tests to get a federal certificate to work on airplanes. I had the privilege to work on weekends, holidays and midnights, so my social life as I knew it was profoundly changed. I also had the advantage to work in all sorts of weather conditions and take a 25 percent reduction in pay as a carpenter to boost. My dad didn’t understand but after almost 40 years in this industry I still look up when a plane flies overhead.
Patrick Kinane joined the Air Force after high school and has worked in aviation since 1964. Kinane is a certified A&P with Inspection Authorization and also holds an FAA license and commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating. He earned a B.S. in aviation maintenance management, MBA in quantitative methods, M.S. in education and Ph.D. in organizational psychology. The majority of his aviation career has been involved with 121 carriers where he has held positions from aircraft mechanic to director of maintenance. Kinane currently works as Senior Quality Systems Auditor for AAR Corp. and adjunct professor for DeVry University instructing in Organizational Behavior, Total Quality Management (TQM) and Critical Thinking. PlaneQA is his consulting company that specializes in quality and safety system audits and training. Speaking engagements are available with subjects in Critical Thinking, Quality Systems and Organizational Behavior. For more information, visit www.PlaneQA.com.