While headlines scream “Pilot Shortage,” the aviation industry actually needs more maintenance technicians than pilots.
The Boeing Company’s 2016 Pilot and Technician Outlook projects a need for 180,000 more aviation maintenance technicians in North America through 2035 — and 679,000 worldwide. Compare this to need projections for 112,000 pilots for North America and 617,000 worldwide in the same timeframe.
Chuck Horning (’86, DB; ’11, WW), chair of the aviation maintenance science (AMS) department at Embry-Riddle, says many qualified technicians are simply aging out of the workforce. “The last big hiring period was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and a lot of those people are coming up on retirement. They’re going to have a huge turnover in personnel in the next 10 years,” Horning says.
Horning earned his airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificate from Embry-Riddle during that boom; the program had between 1,000 and 1,200 students enrolled at its peak. Interest waned and facilities changed over the next decade, but the AMS department has been operating at its 350-student capacity since 2013.
The demand for qualified aircraft mechanics has maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities, as well as airlines and manufacturers, paying high salaries to attract and retain them.
But Ed Onwe (’12, WW), chief operating officer at VT San Antonio Aerospace, says there is a decreased supply of qualified technicians, despite offering high wages. The MRO facility provides training programs to transition high school students into aviation maintenance, but Onwe says it has seen limited traction. “A career as a mechanic used to have a lot of clout, but I’m not sure the new generation has the same sentiment.”
Mark Kanitz (’96, ’02, ’11, WW), chair of the Embry-Riddle Worldwide Campus’ Master in Aviation Maintenance program, says Canada, in particular, is facing an imminent problem. “In Canada, 46 percent of mechanics are between 50 and 79 years of age. The mechanics are retiring, and it’s happening very quickly,” he says.
Relieving the Pressure
Onwe says process improvement occurs routinely, but it does not alleviate the demand for maintenance labor. “A repair is a repair. You have to complete all repairs per technical instructions to ensure airworthiness. There is no way around it. Certificated entities understand this, and the Federal Aviation Administration does a good job of providing the oversight to enforce this,” he says.
“Work-arounds” are relieving some of the pressure. “Repair stations will hire individuals who don’t have airframe and powerplant certificates, if they have a skill in a certain area — say sheet metal,” Horning says. “A certified A&P is often used to provide oversight of the work. That’s being done today pretty widely. It makes the situation a little less dire.”
The pressure on the industry is paying off for technicians, though. Horning says today a topped-out A&P technician working for a major airline can earn $100,000-plus annually.