Technician Shortage a Key Issue for Aviation Industry

 - January 18, 2012, 2:30 PM

The economy is getting better, which means some things may be getting worse. That’s how it appears as the business aviation industry slowly and haltingly starts to emerge from a long and deep recession and a search begins for skilled labor to fill the growing number of openings.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “This is like déjà vu all over again.” And so it is, though not as dramatic. Following the recession that began in 2001, thousands of skilled workers hired during the boom time of the late 1990s through early 2001 were laid off and furloughed as struggling companies “right-sized” to meet the drop in demand. In mid-2006, the economy was righting itself and business aviation followed suit, and many of those skilled workers let go during tough times didn’t come back when things got better. Some had found other work in areas where the same skills were in demand, others retrained for new careers in different fields, and still others left for more stable, if not greener, pastures.

And so the competition for skilled labor became intense, with one company going so far as to paper the automobiles in a competitor’s employee parking lot with help-wanted flyers.

Now, on the heels of this most recent recession, assuming a recovery is indeed under way, the business aviation industry is already starting to see a new shortage of skilled workers.

Layoffs at Gulfstream Aerospace, from March 2008 through the end of 2009, totaled 1,200. Duncan Aviation, a family-owned and -operated MRO that had long taken pride in the fact that it had never laid off an employee in its 55-year history, implemented a reduction in force that affected 306 positions. Wichita alone, long the self-described air capital of the world, saw a combined total of nearly 13,000 workers laid off by Cessna, Learjet and Hawker Beechcraft and their vendors.

As business aviation begins this recovery, it faces the same problem it did in 2006: many of those who were laid off, as well as those lost to natural attrition, are not coming back.

“A lot of people got out of the industry, and a lot of them aren’t coming back, at least not here,” said George Kythreotis, general manager of Jet Professionals, a global aviation staffing specialist based in Teterboro, N.J.“Some of them went overseas, to the Middle East, China and India.”

These are growth areas for business aviation, he explained, and skilled, experienced A&Ps who would command salaries of $80,000 to $90,000 at Bombardier or Gulfstream are making as much as $120,000 a year in an overseas assignment, said Kythreotis. He added that there can be considerable tax advantages, depending on the host country’s tax treaty terms with the United States. A U.S. citizen working in Shanghai, for example, will pay taxes on earnings only in China, “but it’s significantly less than the U.S. tax rate.”

“The fact is,” concluded Kythreotis, “human capital is evolving on a multinational and international stage, and skilled workers willing to go abroad may find some real advantages.” This, he added, is one reason that Jet Professionals International now has recruiting offices in Basel, Switzerland and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

As for wages in the U.S., Kythreotis said the structure has remained rather flat, “maybe 3 or 4 percent higher than in 2008.” This means a starting salary of about $50,000 a year, or roughly $24 or $25 an hour.

To be sure, even though the industry as a whole appears to be slowly recovering in the U.S., it is halting and spotty and not everyone is hiring. Some pockets of the aerospace industry are recruiting. Atlanta and St. Louis, for example, are cities where aviation businesses are hiring. In fact, “St. Louis [home to Jet Aviation] is hiring both full-time employees and contractors,” said Kythreotis. Other areas, notably Wichita, where Hawker Beechcraft continues to lay off workers and where Boeing is in the process of closing the plant at which it employed more than 2,160 workers, are generally not hiring–although Bombardier Learjet recently announced plans to boost its payroll in Wichita by 300 jobs related to the Learjet 85 program.

Public-Private Training Partnerships

The Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM) in Virginia Beach, Va., reports that enrollment starts were up 7 percent last year, and enrollment continued to show positive growth early this year. At its 10 schools around the U.S., a new 80-week program for A&Ps starts every five weeks, and corporate aviation education director David Jones said, “In the Atlanta area, virtually everybody graduating could find an aviation job.”

Gulfstream Aerospace hired 1,300 at its U.S. facilities nationwide last year and is currently shopping for mechanics, avionics technicians and engineers in some specialized areas. The hiring process emphasizes the individual merit of the candidate and previous work history, including previous Gulfstream experience, said a spokesman.

Looking ahead to a continued recovery, Gulfstream has a number of partnerships with government programs and with local institutions to ensure a continuing pool of entry-level workers.

It is working with Georgia Quick Start, which delivers training in classrooms, mobile labs or on plant floors, to provide leadership training. The company has also made arrangements with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to offer master’s degree programs for engineers who qualify for extra tuition reimbursement, and with local Savannah Technical College to offer skill-building classes “with the intent of potentially hiring the program graduates.”

When Duncan Aviation, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb., was forced to adopt layoffs, it offered severance packages, assistance with counseling services, grief management, training, résumé writing, networking and job hunting. Today, with the market improving, Duncan has begun hiring and saw its workforce grow approximately 6.7 percent last year.

Further, Duncan is seeking to hire the best skilled people with an attitude that fits its corporate culture. “All things being equal, the candidate with prior experience at Duncan Aviation will be given preferential consideration.” Duncan has rehired about 13 percent of those who were laid off or furloughed.

Looking at such key growth indicators as customer feedback, requests for information and quotations, as well as a growing backlog, Duncan has established alliances with colleges in Nebraska and Michigan, and Duncan employees serve on the board of advisors at the schools.

Greenpoint Technologies, an independent completion and refurbishment center in Kirkland, Wash., is hiring, but carefully, “to match our staffing to our workload,” said head of sales and marketing Christine Hadley. She said the center is not finding it difficult to find technical talent, but she emphasized that it is also important that those hired understand and embrace the corporate culture at Greenpoint of “a highly productive, customer-centric team.”

(Partnerships to boost the base of trained mechanics exist elsewhere as well. AAR has teamed with the city of Chicago to create ab initio maintenance training programs.)

Indications are that while an industry recovery is slow, and may be somewhat lengthy, it is happening and it is evident in the gradual growth in hiring. What is less clear is to what degree and how quickly demand for skilled and experienced employees will surpass the available worker pool.

Jones at AIM said the institution expects approximately 1,750 people to graduate this year, with about 65 to 70 percent going into aviation. He added that those who want jobs in aviation will be able to get jobs, “If they’re willing to go where there are jobs.”

Will that change? Dale Forton, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association in Ionia, Mich., notes that about 80 percent of the A&P community is between the ages of 40 and 65 and over the next 20 years “those people are going away.” But that’s the long term.

Another long-term look, said Forton, came from Boeing, which last year estimated a need through 2030 for 650,000 A&Ps worldwide, approximately 32,000 of them in corporate aviation.

In the short term, there is yet another factor to be considered, and that is an end to the war in Iraq and the numbers of highly skilled aviation mechanics who will be leaving the military as their enlistments expire and looking to enter the civilian job market. “It may not be a dramatic number, but it is there,” said Kythreotis.

In the meantime, said Forton, the industry can be thankful that the slow recovery is–for the moment–keeping demand from rising too sharply.

Comments

DOUG MCCOLLUM's picture

NICK,

THIS ARTICLE IS CONSISTENT WITH MY COMMENTS/PREDICTIONS TO YOU ON OPPORTUNITIES IN GENERAL AVIATION.

DAD

Jeff's picture

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics is forecasting for the need of A&P's to be flat (just a 7% increase) over the next 10 years. With the number of A&P schools that have closed due to low enrollment and a decade of upheaval in the airline industry, I think its anyone guess as to what the future looks like. Most recent graduates that I know are not finding good options for earning livable wages in either A&P or flight. Combine that with the level of college debt and its a recipe for disillusionment. Hopefully A&P's will fare better than pilots, where the perceived pilot shortage seems to translate in to a lack of highly qualified pilots unwilling to work for free.
ATP,CFII, MEI, A&P, IA, FCC GROL (now working in a non-aviation role)

LouE ( Interior Tech)'s picture

I have been saying this for quiet some time their is going to be a shortage of skilled techs (craftsman) for the Business Jets . .As I see Completions Centers/MRO's expanding ,building new hanger space.Awaiting BBJ 747-800Vip/787 Dreamliners and BBJn 737 on their 12 yrs cycle .Refurbs. Having been an Interior Tech(VIP)
25+yrs. I've been to several Completion Centers and they are in dire need Exp.
Interior Techs.Following the industry myself,I was getting calls through the Holiday.Normally it's slow from mid Dec.-Jan not the case this time around. Rate's
have been ticking upward as well ! Supply and Demand. I believe demand will out pace supply. Job listings on www.jsfirm.com have increased also.
Thanks for the artical well needed.
LouE Vip Interior Tech
www.vipjettech.com

Fred's picture

How many mechanics that get their A&P are still in the industry after 5 years? Class enrollment may be up but how many actually complete the programs after hearing all the horror stories of low wages, long hours, industry volatility, layoffs and lack of respect as they attend school?! Not a career I would recommend to anyone pursuing, there are so many better ways to earn a living, use technology and support your family all without putting your license on the line every day....I have been doing this for over 30 years and make much less now that I did 10 years ago, the one thing that is the same is I have been treated just as unfairly way back then as I am now....we are not needed until we are needed yet are on-call 24/7/365

PETE D.O.M.'s picture

With no question is the above article spot on. The problem is the new hires to aviation A&P"s find out very quickly that the demand for this profession requires the 24-7-365 mind set. Also the liability for the level of work on aircraft that are very complex. The pay dose not equal the job. When compared to an auto mechanic or train mechanic who works a 9-5 week aviation becomes a hard choice when compensation dose not deliver. I did not want this comment to be drawn out but I am sure the point is made.

Bill's picture

The shortage story is all fiction. I have heard this sad line for over 30 years and it has not come true yet. The airlines still dump their techs like old garbage when the first money crunch comes. The factorys due the same. There are plenty of people who apply, they just for the most do not pass muster on exsperiance or skills. The real issue is that the pay is low and hours are the worst for new hires. Nothing has changed on that front. Most techs now are the ones who recieved their A and P from the weekend A + P schools that dole them out to all with $$$ and some token OJT. The issue now is not getting somebody its getting somebody to work for nothing and take all the heat when something goes wrong. When you bring your boat to the shop or BMW and they charge $140 hour and up to work on them and you bring your jet to the shop for $90 a hour the system is broken. Boost the pay and the issue will fix itself. There are plenty of people who love aviation but putting food on the table and having a life trump that hands down.

John DeMario's picture

Same ole same ole. Been reading this junk since 1978 when the first round of "shortages" was going to change our industry. NOT. Bummer that our "industry leaders" have an imbedded mentality that we really are not skilled labor, and that of course translates into low pay, crappy conditions etc etc. I too am a 30 year plus aviation guy, now not in aviation. Is it any wonder that we have to keep a steady pool of new prospects coming when all the seasons talent bails for more stable and financially rewarding pastures? Hence the problems you see in nearly every major MRO. Two guys who know whats going on, three recent business school grads who haven't a clue running the show, and a couple of ex pilots/military officers trying to manage an operation they really don't have a clue about. Sad. This will not change until aircraft are actually sitting on the ground, broke, with nobody to work them. And before that happens you'll have to witness the demise of all the smaller shops going under first, then the major MRO's feeling the skilled labor pinch. And that sadly hasn't happened in the last 30 years and really is only just starting now with all the closures of mom and pop and small specialized shops folding under the economy. Then the issue of location comes up. Bigger shops, bigger metro areas, higher costs of living, less optimal geography's, essentially concentration of the work force. And when they let loose, see Wichita and MO., crazy unemployment and no opportunities for the skill sets available. Some day...maybe...but I fear not in my lifetime. So...its off to the land of computers, IT and project management and let the corporate and commercial operators fend for themselves.

Doctor Needlube's picture

"There is a shortage of A & Ps........"

".........that will do this crappy, thankless, high stress job for $20/hour."

Fixed.

I've been working corporate for 30 plus years.......20 at one of the ICT OEMs, then as a DOM in various corporate jobs (until the company gets into money trouble, and the Flight Department are the first thrown under the bus.....). I'm currently the DOM on a top of the line Falcon, and a mid-size Cessna part time.

And make about the same money as I did 12 years ago, in my first DOM job. Basically twice the headaches and responsibilities, for 50% less (inflation corrected) pay. There are any number of other "skilled labor" fields where you can hear the same story.

Wake up and smell the BS, guys. When it comes to guys like us, who are considered "overhead" and not "profit generating", there will never be this candy-crapping unicorn-like, mythical thing called a "free market". Too many "business plans" don't work if people actually had to start paying a premium for people who know what they are doing. So the market is designed to work around a new crop of newbies/lemmings coming online every 5-7 years, who have bought into the "shortage of A & P's" myth; assisted by the FAA, who continues to turn a blind eye to the "pencil-whipped A & P Certificate".

Ten generations from now, you will be reading stories about the "shortages of experienced Spacecraft and Powerplant technicians" in the Milky Way......

Doctor Needlube's picture

And all of these so-called "experts" quoted in this story.......

Do they actually go out and interview people, or do they just swap interviews with each other's PR and HR departments?

PETE D.O.M.'s picture

Reading the above comments is a true testimony of the truth about this end of aviation. I have chosen to make it clear to my children that this field will not offer stability and pay to raise a family and certainly not on one house hold income.

Make no mistake it is hard to generalize all in aviation, my passion for the industry will not wavier and that spans 30 years. The people who do make the pay know what I am talking about when you will realize that when the A&P floor worker is no longer present you will have to jump in and keep the fleet going......

Finally retired's picture

Been around the horn since 1967 in aviation as a USAF aircraft maintenance officer, civilian chief of maintenance of a large corporate flight department, corporate pilot, major airline maintenance supervisor, and a service representative for two engine manufacturers. I even taught for the better part of a year at one of the AIM school mentioned above. (I have to say their pay scale for instructors was absolutely horrible, especially in the very high-cost of living area where the school I taught was located.)

The only remotely decent jobs I had were the USAF and the engine manufacturer service rep positions. My advice to a young man of woman would be to go to a decent state university (NOT Embry-Riddle) and get a mechanical engineering degree. Do NOT get an aeronautical engineering degree as you can always find work with a ME,which is not the case with an AE. Then join the USAF or Navy or Coast Guard as a pilot or Maintenance Officer and stay in as long as possible - retire if you can. Avoid the US Army and Marines like the plague. Then leverage that experience to get employed with a good airframe or engine manufacturer. Rolls-Royce, Dassault, and Embraer come to mind. Avoid at all costs Hawker-Beechcraft, Cessna, Piper, Teledyne Continental Motors, and Lycoming.

As for the airline A&P mechanic position the pay is horrible, you will be working night shift which plays hell with your health and family life, you will start out in a main hub which is often a very high-cost metro area. After years of that you will be able to move out to an out-station where you will return to midnight shifts again. Your airline will almost certainly go bankrupt whill you are there. Just not worth it at all, especially if you have any regard or responsibility toward your family members.

R. Randall Padfield's picture

Hello Finally Retired,

Thanks for the well reasoned post. I just wonder why you don’t recommend a degree from Embry-Riddle for budding maintenance professionals. I don’t know any maintenance folks from ERAU that I could identify as such, but I do know other ERAU grads (pilots and others), and I’ve found them well educated. I do know ERAU can be pricey, as my daughter had considered going there.

I also wonder why you recommend that maintenance grads avoid the U.S. Army and Marines. So you know, I am former USAF (joined in 1967, too). Again, I have met and know people in all the services, though they are mostly pilots or former pilots.

Randy Padfield

Editor-in-Chief, AIN

Finally retired's picture

Thank you for your questions. I was trying to write a (brief) reply when American Airlines wrote it for me. American is planning a 13,000 employee reduction including 4,600 mechanics. FOUR THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED MECHANICS!. American is effectively closing their Ft. Worth maintenance base and scaling back their Tulsa maintenance base. Gone will be the relatively high-paying jobs with pension plans, medical benefits, and other middle-class benefits. How many spouses are also affected? How many kids?

American's work will be done by "third-party" mechanics in low cost non-union shops in the US, and more and more likely overseas. The employees will have low pay, no benefits, and no job security. A lot of these displaced mechanics will be competing with recent A&P school graduates for short-term "contract" jobs in the Middle East cesspools, if they don't get out of aviation altogether. Happily the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas might be able to absorb the displaced mechanics in other industries. Godspeed to them.

I recently read another article where a mechanic for a major US airline was fired for reporting a large crack in a structural member of an airliner undergoing a heavy check. The area where he found the crack was not in his work area!

I really think you need to rethink and revise your article.

Tom Clarke's picture

I have not had much trouble finding people for jobs as A&P mechanics, but we have been doing this for years. Sometimes we have trouble in certain regions. If I can help, let me know. Tom@cssstaffing.com

Aneesh Asokan's picture

Every time wen i attend an interview in any airline industry ,de first question dey ask me..is dat.,being a graduate in aeronautical engg y do u wanna work as ground staff or in customer service?could u plz help me to answer diz question?

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