Understanding the Aviation Maintenance Technician Shortage
Let’s talk about the aviation maintenance technician shortage today. It is a topic that has been near the surface for a while but wasn’t really on the significant stage until recently. One positive to come out of the past 2 ½ years, glaring problems in the industry came to the surface. In this case, the demand for aviation technicians outpaced the supply.
This isn’t a new revelation, but it wasn’t ever as unavoidably evident as it is now. So what is driving the problem? And what can be done about it? Let’s explore these questions and more.
What Is the Root of the Problem?
As with any technical discipline, to create a fix for the problem, you have to understand the root cause first.
The problem with aviation maintenance is this: more people are retiring or leaving the field than joining it. But, of course, when you start diving into the problem, you understand that it is much more nuanced.
The big picture is that global demand and commercial growth are outpacing the technicians' supply. As a result, the global market is looking to fill about 610,000 aviation technician positions. But this doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of the problem.
See, technicians in any industry are built over time and experience. A technician with no experience other than vocational training for certification is not a one-for-one replacement for a technician walking away with four decades of experience. They’re not even close to a technician with five years of experience.
Aviation maintenance is a highly technical career field, and it takes decades of experience before you really master it. Even then, every time you learn a new airframe poses a new challenge. They are all different, and they are all so complex that you can never stop learning. As the adage goes, the A&P (FAA maintenance certification) is a license to learn. Possessing the credentials makes you legal, but it does not make you competent.
The other critical element of the rising technician crisis is the enormous strain it places on the remaining workforce to perform. The workload is not decreasing, especially as airline operational tempos are returning to pre-pandemic levels. However, they are returning with a reduced technical workforce, forcing the remaining technicians to absorb the workload.
Technological Improvements Will Help Bridge the Gap
The easiest and fastest way to help technicians in the field is to adopt technological solutions that will help them bridge the gap until broader recruitment and retention issues are addressed and implemented. But unfortunately, those big-picture issues will take years to see headway made.
We can field better solutions that offer ways for technicians to share technical problems with each other and their supervisors without ever leaving the aircraft. In addition, our platform connects technicians with other technicians via voice and/or video.
This can aid junior technicians when they have to work on a project without a more senior tech. Your team can deploy the video feature to illustrate any problems with the process and even to show the finished product for review. The possibilities are endless.
How Many Technicians Are Leaving the Field Every Year?
We know that there is a crash in the aviation maintenance industry looming. We’ve known about it for years. Take a look at this article from over 4 ½ years ago.
Those in and around the industry knew in 2018 that over a quarter of the aircraft technician workforce was 64 and above. That puts them at 68 and above, with everyone aging. There are around 77,000 mechanics that are getting old. The aircraft technician workforce is old, and it is a physically demanding job. If they make it to 65, they are likely to leave.
What Is the Demand for Technicians?
According to the Boeing Commercial Outlook, the demand for technicians is about 610,000 over the next two decades. The North American portion of the total count is 134,000. Over twenty years that comes out to 6,700 new technicians per year.
While this doesn’t sound like many, aviation maintenance is different from other trade skills, aircraft maintenance training is one of the most rigorous in terms of credentialing in the trades. At a minimum, unless the individual has verified military experience, the program takes 30 months to complete. Even with qualifying military experience, it is still 18 months.
Potential Technicians Are Choosing Other Careers Over Aviation
Which leads us to the next section: why are potential aviation technicians not joining the field?
Think about it anecdotally.
You are 18 or 19 again. College isn’t for you. You like working with your hands. Trade skills pay well, and the education or certification is cheaper than college.
But you’re partial to your local area. You don’t want to move. The nearest A&P school is a couple of hours away, and you aren’t close to any hub airports with actual maintenance demand, and the hubs are located in cities that are congested and expensive to live in.
Instead, you sign up with your local electric co-op to become a power lineman. The pay is good, the work stable, and it’s in your hometown. Also, your schooling is only about half the length. So you are well into your apprenticeship when your peer is taking exams.
Why Is It So Hard to Recruit for Aircraft Maintenance Technician Jobs?
There are a few reasons why recruitment is slow for aviation maintenance.
Location: the opportunities are centrally located at large airports or near them.
School availability: the FAA found that nearly 40 percent of all A&P students attend ten institutions. Smaller schools are not always in convenient areas.
Pay: the pay is good, but it isn’t necessarily good enough to justify relocation.
Once students enroll in the A&P program, only about 60 percent of them are even taking the exams. These numbers are staggeringly bad! You are only getting a little over half of the people who begin the process interested enough to take the tests. And worse yet, about 20 percent who take and pass the tests elect to move on to careers outside aviation. We are losing one out of every five credentialed A&Ps to leave the industry, and only 60 percent of those who join even seek credentialing. They are being scared off by the level of liability in the trade, the difficulty in receiving credentials (the written and oral exams are tough), and the overall level of job prospects.
What Is the Way Ahead?
There's no easy answer. It will be a stretch to bring on 134,000 new technicians. Why? If 60 percent of students continue to test in the industry, we must recruit 220,000 to get 134,000.
Also, we must do something about keeping the 20 percent licensed but decide to walk away and do something else.
In the meantime, streamlining maintenance operations with a user-friendly and reliable maintenance management system is the best way to optimize the existing workforce’s time and availability.