While the U.S. Congress passed comprehensive legislation in late 2018 to take a multifaceted approach to address workforce shortage concerns, lawmakers are keeping a spotlight on the issue as the numbers surrounding future employment needs remain daunting.
“Challenges in sustaining this workforce are looming, if not already upon us,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Pete DeFazio (D-Oregon) in testimony for a recent aviation subcommittee hearing on the subject. Citing FAA data, DeFazio noted half of the 330,000 aviation maintenance technicians in the U.S. were between 50 and 70 years old at the end of 2018.
The Labor Department, meanwhile, is predicting that roughly 11,800 maintenance and technician jobs will need to be filled each year over the next decade, but the FAA certified only about 8,600 per year over the last four years. In all, the industry is estimating a need for 193,000 new mechanics and technicians in North America over the next 20 years, DeFazio added.
Troubling to the lawmakers is the lack of diversity in the current workforce—3 percent of maintenance workers are women, for instance. “To expand the pipeline and meet the growing industry demand for FAA-certified workers, we can and must do better,” DeFazio said.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a number of measures to address the workforce in general and the diversity of the workforce. These include authorization of an aviation maintenance education and recruitment grant program, the establishment of a Women in Aviation Advisory Board, and the development of a Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force to encourage apprenticeships.
“The future of America’s aviation maintenance and manufacturing workforce is bright, but it is clear Congress can do more to ensure the U.S. remains at the forefront of the aviation and aerospace,” said House aviation subcommittee chairman Rick Larsen (D-Washington), adding that the hearing provides the subcommittee “the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to supporting U.S. jobs and the aviation workforce.”
Larsen stressed that working to improve skills training and workforce diversification would be an “all-around win” for job seekers and the industry.
This is particularly critical, DeFazio added, since the current generation of airplanes has become extraordinarily complex. “There are between 60 and 70 miles of electrical wire in a single Boeing 787. The Airbus A350 performed the world’s first fully automated takeoff last month. Gulfstream’s G650 is built using significantly different manufacturing techniques than previous designs, which required the company to provide specialized training to manufacturing workers,” he said.
As for the FAA’s part, one of Steve Dickson’s first acts as FAA Administrator was to create a position to serve as a focal point to engage with industry, the academic community, and other government industry to collaborate on workforce issues, according to Catherine "Kate" Lang. She is a veteran FAA official who recently returned from an assignment as regional director for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in Brussels to become the new senior advisor to the FAA Administrator on aviation workforce outreach.
“The FAA is committed to partnering with industry, the academic community, and government agencies to remove unnecessary barriers for entry to the aviation workforce, enhance education pathways, and build the pipeline of qualified aviation professionals,” she said in her testimony to the subcommittee. Lang is steering an FAA Aviation Workforce Steering Committee that is tasked with identifying concrete steps that can be taken to address shortages. And the agency is taking a number of steps, from hosting a STEM symposium for future professionals to hosting a summit that gathers industry leaders to discuss potential solutions.
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen, meanwhile, told the subcommittee in testimony submitted for the hearing, “We must come together and take bold actions” given that worldwide demand for air travel is increasing.
Bolen offered support for a bill that Larsen introduced with fellow lawmakers—H.R.5118, the Promoting Service in Transportation Act—that would authorize the Department of Transportation to develop a series of broadcast, digital, and print public service announcements to promote transportation careers.
“Through these public service announcements, we will raise awareness of careers across all modes of transportation, including aviation,” Bolen said. “While momentum around the future STEM workforce is strong, aircraft pilot and aviation technician careers are often not considered by students. That is why the passage of H.R.5118 is critical as it will help address these challenges.”