Skilled technicians wanted; apply almost anywhere

 - January 19, 2007, 10:58 AM

If business aviation observers are on the right track, the industry is again facing a shortage of the skilled craftsmen it needs to keep up with burgeoning demand for business aircraft.

This latest labor shortage has its origins in the recession that began in 2001, when business aircraft sales dropped precipitously and thousands of skilled workers–people who had been so badly needed during the boom of the late 1990s–were laid off.

At that time, one OEM called it “an adjustment.” Another referred to it as “a reduction in force,” and yet another described an “involuntary separation plan.” No matter what they called it, the business aviation industry was getting rid of skilled workers it couldn’t continue to pay to make products for which there was less demand.

Most OEMs and vendors nevertheless fought to keep that labor force intact, well aware that because of the cyclical nature of the business, there would come a time when it would be needed again.

“We said we wouldn’t lay anyone off, and we didn’t,” said Mark Matthes, executive v-p and COO of Duncan Aviation. Toeing that line required some creativity. “We moved painters to the cabinetry finishing shop, we cross-trained people and we had aircraft maintenance and powerplant specialists installing interiors; we figured that in the end, we’d come out stronger for it.”

Five years later, business aviation is in the midst of a major upswing, with aircraft sales again challenging production capacity. At the NBAA Convention last fall, Boeing Business Jets announced $2.25 billion in bizliner orders stretching into the next decade. Also at the convention, Cessna took orders for 115 aircraft valued at more than $1 billion. And Dassault Falcon Jet’s backlog of orders for its new Falcon 7X extends from next year into 2014.

The growth in demand is also making itself felt in the services side of the industry. Oxford Aviation, a full-service FBO, mod facility and completion and refurbishment center, plans to break ground this spring on a $10 million, 93,000-sq-ft facility at Sanford Regional Airport in Maine.

Within the past 18 months at Dassault Falcon Jet the completion division took over the former aircraft service hangars as part of an expansion program, and new service facilities were erected. The cabinetry and upholstery shops were also expanded and an automated system was installed for spray-finish application to flat cabinet panels.
All this activity, says Charles Hawes, president of Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology in Belleville, Mich., is “putting a strain on the system as far as filling the demand for skilled people.”

More Jobs than Graduates
Michigan Institute graduates about 200 certified airframe and powerplant technicians (A&Ps) annually, and Hawes has watched the demand for graduates grow rapidly over the past three years. In 2004 the school had requests for about 3,700 applicants from various companies, within and outside the aircraft industry. As of December 1, he said, “We have more than 4,600 job orders for those 200 bodies.”
At Dassault’s Little Rock facility, the December arrival of the company’s first two production Falcon 7Xs intensified the need for expansion and skilled technicians. And with 20 scheduled for completion this year, the need for skilled interiors people is getting a lot of attention.

Bob Smith, senior v-p of operations at Dassault Falcon Jet’s Little Rock Completion Center, hopes to hire about 150 people this year. He said the company is looking for “a few engineers, but about 70 percent [of those hired] will go to the back shops and interior installation, and we have a need for exterior paint specialists.”

Like other OEMs’, Dassault Falcon Jet’s airplanes contain increasingly more composite components. “We opened a larger composites shop last year and were having a hard time finding people with that kind of experience, so we set up a training program with Pulaski Technical College, just north of Little Rock, and we’ve hired almost everyone they’ve put through the course.”

The shortage of skilled labor is also being felt in Dallas, where Landmark’s Associated Air Center does widebody bizliner interiors. “Demand for skilled labor is at an all-time high and we’re looking for upholstery and interior installers,” an Associated executive told AIN. On the other hand, Associated, as well as other Dallas aviation employers, did benefit from Delta Air Lines’ decision to move its major maintenance facility from Dallas to Atlanta. The airline’s departure left a pool of skilled technicians looking for work who had opted not to make the move east with Delta.

Everybody’s Hiring
Even those companies that claim not to be experiencing a shortage of skilled technicians are nevertheless hiring. A spokesman for Bombardier described the workforce at its Wichita, Montreal and Toronto facilities as “stable.” At the same time, however, he noted that the Canadian OEM has been rehiring former employees and using more contract workers to meet the current peak demand.

To fill a temporary demand for skilled labor in one area or another, the company has also been doing “a fair bit of cross-training,” as well as moving people from one shop to another as necessary. “We’re managing our resources based on lessons learned during this last recession,” the spokesman said. “And while we’re building a healthy backlog, production is at a comfortable rate at this time.”

A number of aviation service centers and completion and refurbishment facilities see cross-training employees as an effective way to address the labor shortage. “We have a good core of trained people with multiple skills, and the cross-training of new people has worked out well,” said v-p of sales Robert Roth of Global Aircraft Interiors in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. The company has also started a program with the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services to train A&Ps.

Jim Horowitz, president of Oxford Aviation in Sanford, Maine, is “looking to hire 200 people.” Fortunately, he said, the independent refurbishment center has a workforce from which to draw in Maine, particularly among the cabinet-making and boat-building industry. “And for A&Ps, we’ve always been able to count on the Navy for highly skilled people from facilities such as Brunswick Naval Air Station,” which he noted is in the process of being closed. Oxford also has a state-sponsored in-house training program.

The company recently expanded its facilities, and Horowitz expects his skilled workforce to increase from 65 to slightly more than 100 by year-end. He further expects that it will double to about 200 by the end of next year.

As a result of finding creative ways to avoid layoffs during the recession, Duncan Aviation also appears to be coping with the shortage of skilled technicians. Matthes noted, however, that the company was hiring throughout last year and continues to do so this year.

Although the company is “optimistic about the future and our ability to attract customers,” he added, it maintains a coaching and mentoring program for newly hired workers and is placing “an emphasis on leadership training that serves to broaden their career paths.

“It’s a matter of managing resources,” said Matthes, “and there is no more important resource than the people who work here.”

Where is the next generation of aviation technicians coming from?

The most recent economic recession, during which thousands of aviation technicians were laid off, is not the only reason for the current and growing shortage of skilled labor facing the business aviation industry today.

The industry’s failure to sell the role of the aviation technician to the next generation, shrinking enrollment in a dwindling number of technical schools, and a lack of support from the business aviation industry itself are also to blame.

According to Charles Hawes, president of Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology, even with the growing demand and better salaries and benefits packages, the number of students studying aviation technology in U.S. schools is dropping.

Hawes said one reason for the lack of interest in aviation technology is the expense, both to the student in terms of tuition and to the schools in terms of equipment, software and tooling.

At Michigan Institute, programs typically require 1,900 to 2,100 hours, and the cost ranges from $20,000 to $30,000. Once students graduate, most of the entry-level jobs in the business aviation industry are in the $15-an-hour range, considerably less than the $20-an-hour-or-better starting salary electrical power companies offer.

Hawes also pointed out that there are 15 percent fewer schools than there were three years ago. “If a college is facing financial difficulty, it doesn’t require a degree from MIT to see that courses with low enrollment and heavy expense are going to be the first ones dropped,” he explained.

Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), agrees with Hawes and added that too many people working on their A&P certification drop out when recruited by another industry that does not require certification. “Somebody from an air conditioning company comes in and offers them $15 or $20 an hour to start, and they’re gone. The sad part is that most of these are really crummy jobs, with little or no future beyond getting your fingernails greasy.”

Part of the problem, said Finnegan, is that the aviation industry has not sold the profession very well. “It isn’t just a profession; it’s really the beginning of a career path that leads to positions that are well paid and that carry a lot of responsibility.” A good director of maintenance is going to make $100,000 a year minimum, and it’s not unusual to find skilled technicians with five years of experience who are salaried and making $60,000 to $70,000.

Fortunately, said Dr. Tim Brady, dean of the college of aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, “There are still people who truly love aviation, who will come and who will stay, even without the big salary.”

He also noted that now demand for skilled technicians is such that despite aviation maintenance science being a four-year degree, there are students leaving Embry-Riddle as soon as they get their A&P certificate, after about 18 months.

Using Skilled Workers More Efficiently
Many companies, said Finnegan, are adjusting to the current shortage of skilled aviation technicians in part by creating systems under which noncertified technicians work under the supervision of experienced and certified technicians in a ratio that offers the greatest efficiency.

On the other hand, said Finnegan, “We need to look on our pool of skilled technicians as important to the national economy.” He pointed out that as more and more maintenance work is being shipped overseas, more and more aviation technicians in the U.S. are seeing aviation as unstable.

“Our aviation maintenance skills are a legitimate part of our national trust,” Finnegan explained. “They are a critical part of any product lifecycle management program and crucial to aviation safety and national security.”

PAMA has recently begun promoting tax incentives “as the first step toward achieving a robust aviation maintenance workforce [in the U.S.],” said Finnegan.
Other steps include greater validation and quantification of the skills of the aviation
technician and greater support in the form of hardware and software provided to technical training schools by the major aircraft manufacturers and service providers.

At a recent event, said Hawes, the CEO of a large business aircraft manufacturer made it clear that one of the challenges facing his company was finding skilled people for his service centers. “At the same time,” said Hawes, “this same company refuses
to sell training software to the schools–software that the schools would happily pay for.” They’re worried that after receiving training on their software, the students will end up employed by a competitor.

On the positive side, aviation insurers, said Finnegan, have already begun to recognize the skills and experience of well trained aviation technicians and they reward operators who employ them with lower premiums.

Creating Multiple Career Paths Is Important
Finally, he said, the industry needs to present the role of the aviation technician as more than just a wrench turner, and promote it as a profession with multiple career paths within the industry. “I don’t hold out management level as a Holy Grail, but somebody with hands-on experience has an advantage when being considered as a shift supervisor or general manager of a repair facility.”

While some schools have dropped out of the business of training aviation technicians, others are more optimistic. At Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, senior academic program director of aeronautics Isaac Nettey is looking forward to the launch of an A&P program. “The board recently authorized us to go ahead in 2007 at the Ashtubula campus.”

Other programs are appearing elsewhere. One of them is the Kansas Technician Training Initiative, which has the backing of state, city and local governments, as well as support from the aviation industry in Wichita. Among the goals is a $40 million training facility.

While enrollment in aviation technician programs in the U.S. is falling, the opposite is apparently happening in Asia, said a Bombardier Business Aircraft spokesman. In response to a lot of interest on the part of young people, schools in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are growing. This is especially true in Dubai, “where there has been a strong initiative on the part of the government, with the backing of the royal family, to turn the region into an aviation leader. Dubai is already home to several civil aviation training colleges, he said, “and we need them there and in other parts of the world.”

Finnegan was blunt about how the industry in the U.S. must respond to global competition. “Our response to the shrinking workforce [in America] must be one of rebuilding and creating stability,” he said. “We cannot expect to achieve our nation’s goals without investment in this valuable human asset.”