Parents, schools, industry need to join forces to put aviation maintenance on the radar of today’s youth.
On a cold night in January, Erica Williams ventured to a suburban Milwaukee, WI, restaurant to attend an informational meet-and-greet with an airline looking to hire new pilots and technicians.
As a recent technical college graduate who hopes to have her A&P license by summer, Williams was excited to network with airline staff and explore job opportunities within its maintenance department. Her interaction with the airline started a few weeks before the informational session, as she had secured an interview with the carrier the next day for a tech store position.
“I love them,” she said of the airline. “I’ve heard so many good things about them. I just want to get my foot in the door and start working for a company that I feel strongly about.”
Candidates like Williams who are eager to break into aviation maintenance are the type of people carriers want to see attend their job sessions. The problem was, she was the only one interested in maintenance that showed up.
The apparent lack of interest in aviation maintenance is a growing concern throughout the industry, especially when compared to data recently released by the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC). It found that new entrants make up just 2 per cent of the AMT population annually, while 30 per cent of the workforce is at or near retirement age.
To put these figures into context, ATEC data shows that FAA airman database includes about 285,000 certified mechanics. The average age of an FAA mechanic is 51, with 27 per cent of the mechanic population at least 64 years old or higher.
This is concerning because although about 6,200 new technicians join the industry each year, these new A&Ps will not keep pace with retirements, according to ATEC data.
“If people are retiring, and taking their lifetime of knowledge and experience with them before the new people come on board, that’s going to be a big loss of cultural knowledge across the entire industry,” said Bill Russo, Aviation program director, University of the District of Columbia Community College.
“We need to find a way to attract these people, get them interested and into our programmes as quickly as we can, and then support them while they’re here. We need to do that as an industry.”
While the projected numbers of new AMTs aren’t very encouraging, especially when compared to Boeing’s 2016 forecast that 679,000 new commercial airline maintenance technicians will be needed globally by 2035, it does represent a terrific opportunity for people like Williams who are interested in aviation maintenance.
Trained technicians are likely to be in demand for years to come. They can earn a good salary, and choose where they want to work. The trick for airlines, and the schools that train future technicians, is to pique people’s interest in aviation maintenance to ultimately get them in the door.
There’s no question young people have a myriad of career options available to them: four-year college; two-year college; military; entering the workforce. And within each of those broad categories, there are hundreds of other career paths to take. However, aviation maintenance is just one of them, and seemingly not on the minds of many.
“What we need to do is get the word out and put this career on their radar, because it’s not on there now,” said John Goglia, former National Transportation Safety Board member and president of the Aerospace Maintenance Competition presented by Snap-on.
That seems to be the case, as ATEC data shows enrolment in the 171 certified active aviation maintenance technician school A&P programmes operating in the US is about 17,800, while FAA-approved system capacity in those programmes stands at about 34,000. This shows there’s plenty of room for new students.
So, what’s the best strategy to help recruit students into aviation maintenance? The common theme shared by many technical schools is that a collective effort between themselves, airlines and primary/high school institutions is needed to raise awareness that aviation maintenance is a strong, viable career choice for students to consider.
Reach students early
For some schools looking to recruit new students into their A&P programmes, the process begins long before they’re eligible to enrol. Tulsa Tech (Tulsa, OK) uses a strategy of community outreach to visit about a half-dozen local grade and high schools each year to tout aviation maintenance.
“Without young people being interested in aviation and getting the word out about our programmes, it doesn’t really do any good. We have to pique their interest first,” said Sheryl Oxley, Tulsa Tech’s aviation program coordinator. “If we don’t reach them at a young age, then aviation as a whole will suffer.”
In addition to school visits, the campus regularly hosts open houses, and opens up their facilities to local civic organisations for various meetings and events – all in hopes of more people learning more about Tulsa Tech’s role in the community and the programmes it offers.
Oxley said the school even takes a group of aspiring aviation students each summer to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, to broaden their horizons on all things aviation. At AirVenture, Oxley’s students partner with the Aircraft Electronics Association and work their booth at KidVenture, an area devoted to kids learning more about aviation.
Oxley said Tulsa Tech has enjoyed strong relationships through the years with airlines such as Spirit and American, as well as other aviation companies. American even donated an MD-80 aircraft to the school back in 2011 for student training.
Additionally, American mentors a team of Tulsa Tech students at the Aerospace Maintenance Competition Presented by Snap-on, and lends other support to the school’s aviation programme.
“It’s helpful to bring in people working in the industry to talk to parents and students in real life and say, ‘We’re out there, we’re looking for people and these are your opportunities,’” she said. “First-hand exposure is always the best because that’s going to leave the most lasting impression.”
This idea of communicating directly to parents and telling them that a career in aviation maintenance is a strong choice, and not a consolation option for their children, is something that Steven Sabold believes is helpful.
“There’s still the challenge in changing the perception of a parent,” said Sabold, director of marketing and information technology at Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA). “While most parents are well aware of the opportunities in skilled trades, for some parents the hardest part is trying to communicate to them that there really are options.
“However, whenever a parent accompanies their child to one of our four campuses, it’s really an eye-opening experience for them.”
Like Tulsa Tech, PIA works to reach students at high school and grade school levels – a strategy that also extends to leadership of those schools. This helps ensure superintendents, principals and guidance counsellors have a clear understanding of the college’s offerings and services, which help them advise students who show mechanical aptitude or interest in aviation to evaluate PIA, he said.
The school has also become involved with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, which has a partnership with the Mike Rowe Foundation, an initiative that awards scholarships to people pursuing careers in skilled trades.
PIA’s website uses an interactive map to show parents and students every single company that has hired one of its graduates; how many people it hired during a specific timeframe; and the range of starting pay. These efforts are all aimed at giving parents and students a more complete understanding of the types of opportunities available in aviation.
But perhaps the most impactful tactic directed at parents and students is hearing directly from airlines that have close relationships with PIA.
“Employers need to understand their voice is vital. I can sit here and talk to a family, but if an employer is expressing this demand – that is what’s vital,” Sabold said. “Schools are limited on what they can say for accreditation reasons, but employers are the ones that can speak out, and that’s where these partnerships have really become a valuable asset.
“When airlines are saying, ‘We need 300 technicians yesterday,’ that’s an impactful statement.”
Bill Russo has found social media to be successful in attracting young people into the aviation programme at the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC). The school, which serves the inner-city population of Washington, DC, uses Facebook and other platforms to create connections with numerous local and regional aviation companies.
“If you have a kid that grew up in a bad part of town, their outlook and prospects may not be that good,” Russo said. “But if we can get them to look our way, we can give them the training and time, and get them into an industry with a good job. That’s absolutely life changing for them.”
UDC-CC’s social outreach has led it to create ties with the DC Youth Foundation and DC Public Schools. This has paved the way for hundreds of students gaining valuable exposure to the school’s aviation programme through field trips and tours.
“Many students have never even heard of aviation maintenance, but after they show up they think, ‘That was really cool and I could do that,’” Russo said. “Even if we get just a few of them into our programme, then we’ve accomplished our goal to serve the needs of those in the community that aren’t being met now.”
One of Russo’s goals is to increase the number of women technicians in the industry. According to ATEC data, women comprise just 2.3 per cent of technicians in the US. Russo is a member of the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM) and is working on creating a chapter in Washington, DC.
AWAM is an international organisation open to both women and men, and has membership opportunities for students and corporations. Its goal is to champion women’s professional growth and enrichment in aviation maintenance.
Creating new, modern-day Rosies
Stacey Rudser heads up one of AWAM’s newest chapter in Central Florida, and it’s their goal to see that low percentage start increasing.
“The focus of our chapter in Central Florida has turned into getting young children, especially young girls, interested in aviation maintenance as a career. Because it’s not something that occurs to little girls; it’s not marketed to them,” she said.
Rudser, who works at STS Line Maintenance at the Orlando International Airport, recently spent time with a troop of six-year-old Girl Scouts and let them play with one of her daughter’s toy airplanes. The girls got to take it apart and put it back together, and had many questions about how airplanes work, especially the lavatories.
“They wanted to use the screwdriver, the wrench and take things apart… they were fascinated with it,” she said. “I was surprised because I didn’t expect that age group to be so interested having not been exposed to it before.
“I told them I was an airplane mechanic, but those little girls pointed out that my nails were so pretty. I told them, ‘Being feminine and a mechanic are not mutually exclusive. You can do both.’”
Rudser believes the key to increasing the number of women technicians is to continue proactive efforts to engage them as often as possible at events such as air shows, Girls in Aviation Day, airport tours and the like. These events provide the hands-on exposure that’s needed to make the connection that aviation maintenance can be a career.
Her chapter recently teamed up with Women in Aviation International at an event in which high school students made a keychain by shooting a rivet through sheet metal and performing other mechanical skills.
“They were all about doing this, they wanted to be Rosie the Riveter, and that’s a powerful image that never occurred to them as a career. They never pictured themselves as an AMT until now,” she said. “We’ve got to do a better job, as an industry, of reaching people. We need an entire conversation about what aircraft maintenance is; we need to broaden the conversation and get kids involved while they’re young.”
One avenue providing students with additional exposure to the industry is the Aerospace Maintenance Competition Presented by Snap-on. Held during the MRO Americas conference, the AMC provides a venue for professional AMTs and AMEs, as well as students, to come together in friendly competition, test their skills against each other and give a loud shout-out of their presence in the industry.
“Our students have the chance to be mentored by industry professionals, and work together as a team on projects. That’s so invaluable,” Sheryl Oxley said of her Tulsa Tech students participating in this year’s AMC. “I hope they carry that interactivity of working together into the industry. It’s a trip of a lifetime.”