Maintenance industry needs professional standards

 - June 9, 2008, 8:17 AM

Almost everywhere I go, the subject of mechanics being recognized as professionals filters into the conversation. Often there is a mild tone of bitterness, as people lament the fact that mechanics are somehow not considered professionals. What decides whether a trade or skill is considered a profession? According to one measurement, if a third party pays you for your knowledge and ability you are a professional. If you pass a test administrated by a recognized organization, you are considered a professional. Aircraft mechanics meet both of these standards.

Two types of professional–certified public accountants and registered nurses–operate within a structure similar to that occupied by aircraft mechanics. In both cases, participants must pass a test administered by a government agency after completing the required education. They must also receive recurrent training. Certified public accountants, for example, are required to prove they have undergone 40 hours of training every two years. Most aircraft mechanics receive this amount of training, so I don’t see this as a difficult task to accomplish.

In almost every discussion about this subject, someone points out that the U.S. government classifies an aircraft mechanic as semi-skilled. At one time that was true, but the U.S. government stopped classifying employee groups in the mid-1980s and these classifications are no longer used or maintained.

In about 1996, while I was an NTSB member, I researched these classifications within government in an effort to correct the semi-skilled label assigned to aircraft mechanics. After much effort, I discovered that the “semi-skilled” designation was used within the Department of Commerce. I was told that I was the first person to inquire about these determinations in many years.

Ten years have passed and there are still some who use this long retired reference to the “semi-skilled mechanic.” The only other place that classifies aircraft mechanics is the Department of Labor, which groups aircraft mechanics with elevator repairmen and installers. It is not exactly a great fit, but at least the elevator repairman earns
as much as or more than most aircraft mechanics. I attempted to change that job classification but I was unsuccessful.

One concern I have about trying to reach the goal of being recognized as a professional is our lack of a clearly stated and widely accepted set of professional standards. The other professional groups have published a set of standards that include professional ethics. Some of our associations have made an effort to establish professional standards, but their work has not been widely accepted by either the aircraft maintenance industry or the average aircraft mechanic.

The Professional Aircraft Maintenance Association (PAMA) has continued that effort with some success, but the road is long and rocky. It hasn’t helped our cause that so many of the associations that represent mechanics are pulling in different directions. PAMA has been working with SAE International to develop a set of professional standards to verify that we have the skills, knowledge and ability to accomplish certain complex tasks. I have been told that they are well into a composite repair standard.

Having standards for aircraft maintenance residing within a globally recognized engineering organization such as SAE International is a major coup, and it helps that virtually all of the engineers who provide the design and specify the maintenance process are members of SAE International. It will take some time to build all the advanced standards required to represent the areas of expertise used by today’s aircraft mechanic. However, we will accomplish this task one step at a time.

One element of a set of professional standards is a requirement to follow the laws of the governing country as well as the professional rules that have been established. To you and me, that means following the FARs and the appropriate maintenance manuals. If you have been following the news about our industry lately, you realize that some in aircraft maintenance are having a problem with staying within the law. Government employees have been accused of violating government ethics rules; since they are aircraft mechanics, we are all tainted by their actions.

We have also seen indications that some aircraft mechanics have had a problem complying with the published procedures. While it might be some time before we know the truth around these published reports, the general public might have already labeled aircraft mechanics not trustworthy. Due to the high level of press coverage of these events, it might be a while before public opinion about maintenance swings back towards the positive side.

From what many of the proud working aircraft mechanics have been telling me,
I believe it’s time we started working on the issue of professionalism in the near term. This will certainly require both the individual aircraft mechanic as well as the industry to establish a meaningful set of professional standards that includes professional ethics.