Hiring Time

If the Part 145 repair station tactical hiring plan’s goal is to hire bodies for the short term, then the company’s strategic plan should be a long-term, well-thought-out plan to create the best aviation maintenance work force in the industry.

First, let me share some private thoughts on some company management as seen through the eyes of mechanics for your consideration and evaluation. The following might be a painful but necessary read.

First of all, unlike 30 years ago, many large repair stations and airlines senior management types are now seen as short timers by those who earn their living in the hangar. Many managers have not grown up in aviation and rarely last more than five years because they are constantly looking for a bigger golden parachute. It is hard for the guy in the hangar to give the current company managers their loyalty when the guy in charge is seen as a caretaker, not as a leader.

Secondly, many senior managers have to change their perception of mechanics. In my other career I have talked to many CEOs and vice presidents of large repair stations. I noticed that some, but not all, see mechanics and technicians as an expense and not as capital investments. In reality, it is the mechanics who are the income producers for the repair station and management is the overhead.

Thirdly, the company’s philosophy regarding both management and employees needs to change. Perhaps the best solution to the first and second items is to promote from within. It’s an old idea but it works. It produces both a stable work force and stable management. Plus, if today’s new hire can readily see that there is a chance to run the show in 20 plus years you have a motivated work force. The only drawback is it takes time, at least 10 years or more to become reality.

Before we get into developing a strategic hiring plan, it is vital that your target hiring standards and employee profile must be high. Do not settle for second best or even third best — Microsoft doesn’t and neither does IBM. You need to hire the absolute best people available. You will need to train them to develop skill sets the industry and your company demand. Why? Because aviation safety is not tolerant of a second-best work force. Aviation maintenance has always demanded excellence and so should you.

How to develop a strategic plan
Make the strategic hiring plan a player. The strategic hiring plan has to be a major part of the company’s business plan. While it is a five-year plan, it must be reviewed at least once a year and revised to ensure that it stays on target. Don’t forget to consider the age of your work force and try to forecast retirements or company growth at least two to five years ahead of time.

Budget. The strategic hiring plan must have an adequate budget and it must be stashed in one of the company’s pockets that won’t be picked when times are bad.

Hiring the right people. Your long-term goal is to hire “good employees,” not skilled employees. This sounds a little strange at first but a good employee can be trained to develop the skills you want. Not all skilled employees are good employees. Develop a profile of your “good” employee and use that as a hiring guide.

Math and reading skills test. At the very least, each new potential employee should pass a test in reading and writing skills. Why? The airplanes of the 21st century are more complex.

Maintenance manuals, work cards, and ADs will become more complex even though the manufacturers try to dumb down manuals a bit. If you hire employees with at least a Grade 10 mastery of English and math, this will reduce common human factors problems that plague many repair stations today.

Be your own gardener. You have to develop the art of growing your own mechanic work force right in your own backyard. You can start by offering junior/seniors in local trade schools a tour of your facilities. I would also offer the local Part 147 schools a similar deal. In addition, I would follow up with an offer of summer 30-day internships for at least two or three outstanding students who show interest in aviation. You have to plant seeds to raise a bumper crop.

Door openers. I also recommend that your company offers several Part 147 schools state-of-the-art training for their students. This means that once a semester you send over an instructor to the school to teach an aircraft system course or provide an overview of a new aircraft. The school, in turn, will then steer their best students to your company.

Bootstrap training. When the shortage of qualified mechanics really hits, you better have a plan in place. You could start by creating an A&P training program in which a new non-A&P employee will earn practical experience toward the ratings by working on airframes and powerplants. This is allowed under 14CFR 65.77. In 30 months, your new employee can sit for the FAA A&P exams based on experience. I would set this program up with the local FSDO so there isn’t a hiccup when the time comes to take the tests.

Long-term partnerships. You need to establish long-term partnerships with good A&P schools, especially those with advanced avionics programs. You can compare schools by asking your PMI to pull up the FAA’s NORMS tracking system and looking at 10 or more schools you are interested in. NORMS is a public-use tracking tool to rate individual Part 147 schools students’ grades and how they compare against the FAA written test national average. When you check out each school’s NORMS, review the last four years’ results. This will give you a more accurate picture.

Offer free training to Part 147 instructors. Another way to make yourself very popular with Part 147 schools is to provide a couple of seats at your facility for Part 147 instructors when you are giving in-house or factory training to your employees. The extra chair usually costs you nothing but the good will between your repair station and the school will pay off big time.

Go military! Perhaps your best new employee prospect in both the short- and long-term hiring process will come from the military. These people are well trained and have a good working knowledge of what airworthy means. You really have to create a dialogue with your local military base or reserve unit and target those GIs who are not going to re-up. Talk to the unit commander and ask for permission to contact those aviation types who are going to get out within a year or so. Leave brochures and FAQ that answer all the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that a prospective employee will want answered.

Leverage your assets. I am always amazed that we send our best mechanics into retirement with a dinner, a slap on the back, and maybe a cheap watch. Consider bringing back the old-timers for some part-time work, especially if you have work to do on older aircraft. The grey heads can share the secrets of maintaining those older aircraft that can’t be found in the maintenance manual with the new guys.

A call to action
In summary, I hope I provided some information on developing a tactical and strategic hiring plan for repair stations and other aerospace companies. The next few years the mechanic shortage will get worse, not better. How so? No leadership. No one wants to take ownership of the problem. The FAA cannot take a leadership role because a few years ago Congress took away the “promoting aviation” part of the original FAA Act of 1958. So now the FAA’s only focus is safety.

The aerospace industry, as of this date, has done nothing. Industry trade groups and unions have concentrated on their own parochial issues like the next contract and how many vendors have paid for tables at their conventions.

I believe that a growing mechanic shortage is going to be with us for a long time, so I am proposing a fix to address the problem. I recommend that before Oct. 4, 2009, a summit be held in Washington, D.C., under the authority of the Department of Transportation to address our problem. DOT will buy in because they are responsible for all economic issues in transportation. All the players, maintenance, A&P schools, repair stations, airlines manufacturers should be there. Their mission is threefold:

  1. Develop a marketing plan to raise interest in the aviation maintenance profession.
  2. Improve the quality of Part 147 schools.
  3. Raise the bar for A&P qualifications.

Unfortunately, we Americans love to fluff up our feathers and talk a problem to death. That is why on the first day of the summit, under my plan, the attendees walk into the meeting with their solutions to the three problems in hand. No solutions = no time at the microphone. After all, solutions are presented to a management committee that represents DOT, FAA, and industry of no more than five individuals. The committee will choose the best solutions.

Some might suggest that this is a draconian approach to problem solving, where in the past each proposal must be put under a microscope to see if the presenter is getting a financial or political advantage out of it. We do not have the time to play D.C. games.

Once the best solutions are picked by the committee, then they should be implemented either by the DOT or industry before the beginning of the next year. Then in October of 2010 there should be another meeting to address three more issues. The rule of three will work because if you focus on just three things (instead of 25), you have a much better chance of seeing those three problems solved.

If someone has a better, more effective and efficient solution, you have my attention. But, whether it’s your solution or mine, we better get a move on. Let’s do what mechanics are trained to do — solve the problem soon, or you will see fewer and fewer roll-aways on the hangar floor.

Bill O’Brien died Nov. 9, 2008. He wrote articles for AMT from July/August 1990 to 2008, totaling more than 180 maintenance articles for the readers of AMT. We are honored that he used us as his platform for the industry.