Industry targeting students as A&P mechanic recruits

 - October 10, 2007, 8:51 AM

“We’re having trouble getting students. Becoming an A&P mechanic doesn’t seem to be as attractive to students coming out of high school as it used to be,” suggested Laura Hopkins, associate dean of aviation at South Seattle Community College, Seattle. “The students we do get seem to be attracted to the beauty of flight; we don’t find a lot of people who just want to be an aircraft mechanic.” Hopkins said many of her students want to be, or are, pilots.

David Stanley, associate professor and chairman of the aeronautical technology program at Purdue University, talked about the university’s program. “We are a four-year program and there aren’t many around like ours; most have died off. Our expectations are different from those of a school where you can get an A&P in 18 to 24 months. The industry has continued to change the de facto requirements of an A&P mechanic but the regulatory environment hasn’t kept up. That’s the rationale for our four-year program.”

Stanley said having the A&P certificate continues to affirm that the holder has important knowledge, skills and abilities. “Depending on the career path the individual chooses, however, important elements may be missing in an education that is strictly bound to the A&P curriculum. For those who have an interest in working for the airlines or in the aerospace industry, dope and fabric may be of little or no value, whereas more emphasis on electronics, engineering or engineering-technology philosophy and design-process philosophy, for instance, may be a necessity in the curriculum,” he said. “Specific, additional curriculum requirements that are identified in this manner will tend to drive the answer to the question, ‘Who should we recruit as future A&P students?’”

Stanley suggested that changes in the subjects required for A&P certification might ultimately force programs to recruit students with stronger academic skills. “Given the engineering and management roles that A&P graduates find themselves in today, future A&P recruits, in my opinion, should be academically able to go beyond the A&P and be successful in the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree and, in many cases, a master’s degree,” he said. “But will the industry support the A&P who has prepared to that level? It is unlikely that general aviation will, given the state of that industry and the wages and salaries it pays today.”

Redefining the A&P Mechanic
But Professor Mark Thom, a colleague of Stanley’s at Purdue, has a somewhat different perspective. “I think the future of the A&P mechanic is largely out of the hands of the schools and in the hands of the government and industry,” he said. “Where we will find tomorrow’s maintenance personnel is irrelevant until the issue of what the A&P should be in the future is defined. Currently the U.S. Department of Labor classifies the A&P mechanic as unskilled labor. This is despite the fact that the A&P mechanic is required to be part mechanic, part engineer, part manager, part accountant and part lawyer. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the western world that does not recognize the A&P as a form of practicing engineer.”

Howard Fuller, senior auditor for Palmyra, N.J.-based Wyvern, suggested we won’t be finding future mechanics. “We won’t as long as the airlines and other aviation employers view maintenance as a cost rather than an asset,” he said. “The bean-counters will always cut there first and squeeze maintenance salary levels to the point where this profession is not attractive financially, especially when potential employees look at the rewards versus educational costs, formal education time investment and responsibilities.

“Historically, the very people who readily pay flat-rate maintenance fees of more than $75 per hour for their Audi scream bloody murder if faced with a $50-per-hour charge on their Mooney. This lack of respect from both customers and FBO management is what has driven many fine mechanics out of the industry,” Fuller said.

“In an era where the academic requirements for an A&P certificate are at least equal to those required for an engineering degree, are our mechanics called engineers as their peers are in many foreign countries?” asked Fuller. “No, they are at best termed technicians. Without the respect or pay, their future ranks will certainly be diminished,” he predicted.

Garrick Weaver, human resources specialist for Keystone Helicopter of West Chester, Pa., agreed with Fuller. “The future for A&Ps is not as bright as we would like. Many qualified individuals take jobs in automotive or general maintenance organizations. We must continue to partner with schools and military bases to help recruit, train and employ the best of the best. Organizations like ours can offer a lot of the big-company benefits with the small-company participation, career progression and employee input. We must continue to find ways to advertise and promote this to the next generation of technicians.”

A spokesman for Stevens Aviation of Greenville, S.C., said, “Many OEMs have laid off mechanics, and we’ve found what was a negative in the industry has been a positive for us by picking up some of these personnel. The big issue is to train qualified people properly so we’re doing an internal mentoring program. We are matching seasoned veterans with newer employees. The more seasoned employees are getting close to retirement and they’re passing on their knowledge.”

Mentoring Programs
Stevens Aviation has been working closely with Greenville (S.C.) Technical College to develop A&P mechanics since the late 1980s. The relationship is beneficial for Stevens, the school and its students. “Greenville Tech is an excellent resource for finding and grooming good A&P talent,” said Hiott Daves, a 41-year veteran of Stevens. Daves was formerly the director of maintenance and is now Stevens’ director of military operations. “We identify candidates while they are still students and plug them into our mentoring program,” Daves explained. “They start out working line service, and once they prove they’re competent around aircraft we typically move them into component repair and then onto a seasoned aircraft maintenance crew once they receive their A&P. Quite a few have worked their way up into crew leader positions.”

Daves and other Stevens executives offer their time and expertise to Greenville Tech by sitting on the school’s A&P program advisory committee, where they help the school set its curriculum based on aviation trends. Stevens has also donated tooling, equipment and parts to the college. Most important, Stevens provides an opportunity to start a career.

“Our students know that if they perform well they have a chance to earn employment at Stevens Aviation. That is a tremendous incentive,” said Carey Castle, former department head of Greenville Tech’s aircraft maintenance program and now a dean at the college. “Stevens is an excellent partner for us. It’s rewarding to know we can reciprocate by providing qualified A&P candidates,” he added.

“The veteran guys are great mentors,” said Randy McCall, who expects to earn his A&P next year and has worked at Stevens for 17 months. “That makes me a better maintenance technician. I look forward to continuing that tradition someday when I’m in their position.”

While Greenville Tech is a reliable source for aspiring A&Ps, Stevens uses its Fast Track and educational reimbursement programs to further develop its employees. Fast Track is an internal training program that prepares qualified personnel in all areas of the company for future management positions. The educational reimbursement program provides financial support, including full college tuition reimbursement, to those employees wishing to further their education.

“In 1993 the FAA commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to study issues regarding the next generation of pilots and maintenance technicians,” Bob Blouin, former senior vice president of operations at NBAA, told AIN.

“The result was a report titled Pilot and Aviation Maintenance Technicians for the Twenty-First Century–An Assessment of Availability and Quality,” Blouin said. “At that time we thought there was a crisis looming with respect to finding maintenance technicians for the future, but I think business aviation is holding its own. We tend to pick the cream of the crop in terms of people and we pay them an honest wage.”

Blouin said the problem in the maintenance field in general is that most mechanics, particularly coming out of school, can make more money as a mechanic at a car dealership. “What we have to do is make this profession attractive again. Not just maintenance but all aviation. We have to put the local airport back into the community by creating open houses and by supporting the schools.” Blouin pointed to programs such as NBAA’s AvKids and the EAA’s Young Eagles as effective tools.

“I would particularly like to see more programs such as the open house held at White Plains Airport (HPN) in White Plains, New York,” Blouin said. “The days of looking through the fence and getting invited to go for an airplane ride are gone forever. It’s a shame but that’s how it is, so now we have to be creative at getting young people involved in aviation during their formative years.” Blouin cited the annual Duncan Aviation open house as another example of industry trying to get young people involved.

Andy Clark graduated in December last year from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Ill. with a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology. He is currently preparing to take his FAA written and practical test for the A&P rating. “I knew at an early age I wanted to be an A&P mechanic,” he said. “I’ve been going to EAA airshows since 1989; I just fell in love with airplanes. Fortunately in my junior year of high school I was able to go to an affiliated program that allowed me to work on my powerplant rating. I basically used that as preparation to go to SIU.” Clark confirmed Blouin’s theory about the importance of reaching young people. “I went into aviation just because I loved airplanes. I never really researched the market.”

Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, said the association is actively pursuing ways to talk to elementary and high-school students about aviation maintenance. “There’s a lot of bad feelings today about pay, laws and other issues so I believe we may have to reinvent the industry. We need to begin promoting the concept of life-long education, professionalism and dedication. We need to impress upon those coming into the field that they must take charge of their career by making a personal plan and getting on with it.

“Our industry has a philosophy that is such that when we retrench we throw away our young people and the passion they bring to aviation maintenance,” Finnegan said. “It’s a union orientation, and personally I think we have to keep a full spectrum, from young to experienced, not kick out the young, enthusiastic ones. The future is with our young people, and we’re not waiting for industry to tell us to go look for mechanics. It’s been shown that students begin to consider career options at about the fifth grade. We’re going out to get things moving now.”