AAR is taking proactive steps to ensure that it has a steady stream of new recruits joining its MRO facilities.
The recent improved financial performance of US airlines has had an unforeseen effect on labour in the MRO industry, says Chris Jessup, chief commercial officer at AAR.
Until a few years ago, achieving a balance between personnel retiring and being lured to major airlines, and finding replacements was manageable, but as those carriers have been able to renegotiate contracts with improved salary and pension provisions, older maintenance personnel have been tempted to retire.
Employees are lured away by higher wages at an airline.
Within the company, the age demographic varies between the facilities – there are many older staff in the Oklahoma City facility, which has been in the company for decades, compared to the more recent facility in Rockford, IL and Duluth, MN – but he says it is pretty close to the industry average, with about a third of the workforce coming up retirement in the next five years.
Compounding the problem is that the necessary young talent is just not there in the education system. Previously, the company would reach out to technical colleges and universities to find people looking at aviation maintenance as a career.
It is now establishing relationships with high schools to reach students who are 16-18 years old and, at some of its bigger facilities, has held family days, with walks through the hangar and workshops.
This is designed to attract students who will eventually end up with an A&P certification after four years. As an incentive, the company provides annual funding to offset tuition fees – students who pursue the FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate are eligible for up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursements.
However, he makes the point that AAR will continue to provide assistance if a trainee, having become an employee, wants to study part-time to take a four-year degree.
In addition, the company actively promotes internal promotion to allow technicians to become managers. Tuition reimbursement is also available for graduates joining the company after university. Of course, this is an industry-wide problem.
The Aviation Technician Education Council, compiles information about A&P mechanic FAA certificate holders, the educational institutions that prepare the majority of these individuals for careers in aviation maintenance, and the companies that employ maintenance professionals.
In its 2018 Pipeline Report, released in December, it highlighted:
- The mechanic population is projected to decrease by 5 per cent in the next 15 years.
- Schools have the capacity to double production of A&P candidates. As of mid-November, enrolment at AMT training schools was 17,800, nearly half their capacity of 34,300. As institutions are ramping up recruitment activities and expect enrolment to increase, industry employers can tout the benefits of credentialing, thereby attracting more students to those schools.
- Aviation must increase its focus on retaining A&P candidates. 20 per cent of candidates pursue careers outside of the industry, and only 60 per cent elect to take the FAA mechanic certification test.
- While the percentage of female A&Ps is increasing, it remains low, at less than 3 per cent. This presents an opportunity to help address a looming shortage.
However, AAR has taken a number of decisive steps to remedy the situation, starting with the appointment of Ryan Goertzen as vice president of maintenance Workforce Development and the launch of the AAR EAGLE Career Pathway Program late last year.
The company says EAGLE (Ethics, Airworthiness, Greatness, Leadership, Engagement) demonstrates how students can earn portable, stackable skills and earn a good living wage. It will be linked to the company’s five US facilities in Duluth, MN; Indianapolis, IN; Miami, FL; Rockford, IL; and Oklahoma City, OK.
Goertzen said in a company report called EAGLE Pathways: Bridging the Middle-Skills Gap to Careers in Aviation: “The maintenance career path has been shrouded in mystery and occurring beyond the security fence, limiting access and understanding by the general public.
“EAGLE attempts to bring clarity by defining the career path beyond the technician to positions in management, maintenance operations and quality control. Within these defined paths are even more positions and departments that provide for opportunities for personnel to grow their aviation maintenance career.”
EAGLE kicked off in October with the signing of a partnership with the College of Aviation of Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo, MI, approximately halfway between AAR facilities in Windsor and Rockford.
The five-year scheme features job shadowing and mentoring opportunities, as well as the sharing of proprietary software information with students interested in careers as aircraft maintenance technicians.
Students will receive academic support, be monitored throughout their academic careers, and have an opportunity to interview with AAR after graduation.
In December, a new Aviation Futures Training Center to train students in aviation sheet metalworking was announced by AAR and Olive-Harvey College in Chicago.
The 1,115m² centre will launch in March 2019 as an extension of Olive-Harvey College’s Transportation, Distribution and Logistics (TDL) Center. The aviation sheet metalworking course prepares graduates for the CertTEC Certification.
In Phase I, students who complete the 300-hour sheet metal course will earn a portable industry certification to either gain entry-level employment in aviation, or a companion industry such as heavy manufacturing, boating, automotive repair or HVAC.
They can elect to continue their education and enrol in Phase II, a composites course to be introduced in 2020, and then, if they choose, Phase III, aviation electronics, to be offered in 2021.
This is a good example of public and private partnership, says Jessup, of how the company can influence the training curriculum to meet its skills requirements at each of its facilities.
This was reinforced by Goertzen in January 2019 when speaking at the announcement of Lake Superior College (LSC) in Duluth as a new EAGLE partner, although AAR and LSC have collaborated since 2013 on marketing and recruiting efforts, and extending apprenticeship opportunities.
He said the specific coursework developed by AAR with LSC focuses on repair station and air carrier operations, which allows for a smooth transition into AAR’s workforce.
Students will be guided through a five-year career path showcasing job opportunities beyond a technician, including roles in management and quality control.”
The company also believes there is a need to increase outreach to under-represented racial and ethnic groups and women, and AAR has partnered with Aerostars Avion Institute, a public school serving primarily African American and Latino students.
The sheet metal course at Olive-Harvey will open in March with 15 African American students recruited from Aerostar, while 30 per cent of the students are women. Beyond that, efforts need to be made to tap into the estimated 6.5 million discouraged or underemployed American workers and military veterans.
Another target is students who favour a less expensive two-year degree or industry skills certifications as a pathway to a good job, over the high tuition and crushing debt of a four-year degree.
In the same month, Rock Valley College, a two-year community college in Rockford, IL, became the fourth EAGLE partner. As with LSC, there was previous collaboration.
This was in 2016 when AAR was setting up its new 102,200m² facility at Chicago-Rockford International Airport, which saw enrolment in the A&P programme rise from about 40 to its full capacity at 170 students.
Right at the end of January, the Aviation Training Center Vincennes University was announced as the educational institute to support EAGLE in Indianapolis.
Colocated with AAR at Indianapolis International Airport, it has two hangars and 15 aircraft, including a fully functional Boeing 737-200, as well as two full-motion flight simulators and two stationary simulators.
The financial support for tuition fees will come from the state’s Workforce Ready grants, while EAGLE supports the state’s Next Level Jobs Indiana initiative, which includes employer training grants of up to $50,000. That leaves Oklahoma City and Miami.
As noted above, the Oklahoma City MRO facility is long-standing, as are the training connections with the Francis Tuttle Technology Center.
In 2006, they developed the EAGLE 300-hour sheet metal curriculum to be offered at Olive-Harvey and Rock Valley College. AAR also supports scholarships for 100 teachers across the state to attend the Oklahoma Aerospace Summit, and to purchase supplies to teach youth about careers in aerospace.
It is committed to hire 10 per cent of graduates from Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, and provides tuition reimbursement in exchange for a commitment to work for AAR for a minimum of three years.
AAR also partners with KIPP Reach and Western Heights High School to educate, mentor and recruit for aviation jobs by hosting aviation essay contests and career days and providing summer internships.
In Miami, AAR has partnered with Broward County College since 2011, hosting events at its Aircraft Services and Landing Gear facilities in Miami, located near the airport.
It offers scholarships to high school students, and its executives and HR personnel participate in local career fairs.
For example, Brian Loomer, General Manager of AAR Aircraft Services – Miami, has been on the advisory board of the George T Baker Aviation Technical College for many years, annually hosting high school students, and is in regular contact with economic development agencies in the state.
Jessup says engagement with the government side of cities, states and economic development agencies is increasingly important, as they are coming up with attractive programmes of grants, training credits, more funding for schools and incentives for companies to fund training.
Overall, EAGLE should see about 200 to 250 students annually from 2020. That would meet AAR’s requirements and maybe even produce a small surplus available for other companies but, given the size of the shortage, he adds that the entire industry, including the airlines, has to come together to resolve it.
Unfortunately, this is proving difficult. He notes that even conferences at trade events rarely look at the problem.
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