In August of 1993 the FAA sponsored a Pilot and Aviation Maintenance Technician Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel released 117-page report titled: Pilots and Aviation Maintenance Technicians for the Twenty-First Century: An Assessment of Availability and Quality. The report focused on the U.S. aerospace industry’s needs for pilots and mechanics from 1995 to 2010. It was widely distributed but barely read — both within the FAA and the aviation industry. Let me set the tone for this two-part article by paraphrasing paragraph 4.2.9 on page 61 of the report.
“An adequate pool of well-trained and experienced AMTs currently exists within the United States that may fill the anticipated demand for AMTs for up to three and as many as five years. There will be a shortage of fully qualified AMTs for the period of 1995 through 2010 unless action is taken on the recommendations put forth by this panel.”
With the perfect vision of hindsight, the predicted shortage of mechanics did not occur until the latter part of 2005. The report did project an accurate assessment of the industry if the economy behaved according to predictions. But the airline bankruptcies, 9/11, tech bubble pop of 2002, cost of fuel, mergers, outsourcing, and other economic disasters drove the industry into the ground. The resulting lay-offs and firings dumped thousands of qualified mechanics back into the work force, easing the nagging shortage. For about five years, the shortage was just a dull ache, but now it is time to pay the piper because the problem is standing on our front door.
Analysis: What follows is my analysis of today’s shortage of qualified mechanics and what aerospace industries should do to hire the best and the brightest AMT into their company. I will focus on the guy who hires mechanics for a large repair station, but hopefully some of the ideas I present can be used by all. First, why did I pick repair stations?
My spies tell me that there will be no great shortages of airline mechanics in the near term. The airlines overexpanded in the late 1990s in the race to gain marketplace share. The plan was to offer cheap seats and a lot of flights. We all know the sad end of that business model. So now the airlines will spend the next few years making painful corrections, downsizing, and trying both friendly and hostile mergers in which their customers will always pay the price. So where is the real shortage of mechanics?
The real shortage
Right now the real shortages of mechanics is being experienced in large repair stations and manufacturing companies. These are the people who are hurting for qualified people, especially repair stations who work on business jets. Business jet sales and maintenance work are booming. How come?
I am not an economics major, but from what I read in the papers the drop in the value of the U.S. dollar against the world markets has reduced the U.S. dollar’s buying power overseas.
So the once cheap outsourced inspection for a Gulfstream V is now a lot more expensive than just a few years ago. Add the higher transportation costs of fuel, landing fees, and care and feeding of pilots to ferry a corporate jet to Costa Rica or Spain, and the bottom line comes out to a lot bigger number than it did just a few years ago. The corporate bean counters have started to figure it out that it is now getting cheaper to have a U.S. repair station do the work at U.S. rates than to take it overseas.
Searching the job market: While the demands for mechanics and technicians are on the rise, the pickings are small. Overall, the numbers of new FAA-certificated mechanics have declined from 2005 to 2007 by approximately 1,500 mechanics. To make matters worse, more than 37 A&P schools have failed in the last 18 months. There are several reasons for this overall decline. The one that almost no one never even thinks about is the baby bust of the 1970s when birth rates dropped substantially in the United States. Other maintenance careers are strong competitors for a kid with technical skills. The toughest competitors are truck and car dealerships and repair shops. They have now improved their image with their ASE certifications and now pay great wages. Plus, they don’t have the FAA looking over their shoulders.
Also not to be ignored was the past seven years of never-ending litany of bad news about the aviation industry. Strikes, lay-offs by the thousands, hostile mergers, bankruptcies, fare increases, and flight delays all point to an industry that is in trouble. Aviation is hurting, and with the disintegration of the airlines the industry has lost its sex appeal. Ask yourself this question: If you were a young man or woman right out of high school would you choose an aviation maintenance career?
Some in the industry believe the military will bail them out of trouble after the Iraq war is over. I doubt that will happen until at least 2010. Even then the returning GIs from Iraq will have to go to an A&P school to pick up their tickets like I did in the late 1960s. Can you wait that long?
Some more aggressive companies hire headhunters to raid other Part 145 repair stations to hire their mechanics. If your company is having money problems or it has been bought out by another company, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that a headhunter is standing outside your main gate handing out business cards. Or, if he has a tight deadline, he has already reserved a table at the employee’s favorite watering hole offering free beers for five minutes of their time.
While headhunting can be an effective short-term fix, it is the business equilivent of eating one’s own dead to stave off starvation. What a company must focus on is creating a constant and reliable source of well-trained mechanics for the long term. So you need two plans to solve your work force shortage: a tactical plan and a strategic plan.
Short-term fix: Your company needs to develop a tactical hiring plan that would put in place procedures to take care of the short term hiring of mechanics. This tactical plan only focuses on what you can do in the short term, no more than a year in duration. The plan must detail how many mechanics you need and how you are going to get them aboard. The plan should not be a budget buster but the company must adequately fund the hiring effort. Be advised; even though you are under pressure to get bodies I still want you to hire the best candidate(s) for your company. Put together a list of skills and attributes you need. Don’t hire a guy because his only skill is the fact he can fog a mirror.
Tactical ideas to consider:
Company face. Pick a good man/woman to be the face of the company. The company face will do all the initial contacts, hiring, and callbacks, etc. But the most important rule is there should only be one person to be the company’s face. There aren’t two Ronald McDonalds or three or four Michelin tire guys. Any time a new prospect talks to two or more company reps, the message is lost.
Know your target audience. There are three ready-made sources for new hires: Part 147 A&P schools, your competitor’s work force, and the military. Draw a 500-mile circle on a map around your facility and visit every Part 147 school and military base. Be sure to train the HR department and the company face on just what mechanics do. Many good A&P prospects are lost because the company face is a college business school graduate who does not have a clue on what is happening on the hangar floor. If you do not have the time to train your company’s face in the short term, then please tell him or her to take a mechanic along when going on recruiting missions. The company face can answer all the non-technical stuff like 401K plans, insurance, vacation time, etc., and the mechanic can brief him on what aircraft he or she will work on, etc. I recommend that the company face reads my article titled: Who Are You? in the May 2008 issue of AMT magazine. At least he or she will walk in the door with some understanding of a mechanic’s personality type instead of their last college class in human resources manpower assessment.
Money talks! Obviously, the most effective way to hire people is to offer more money than the next guy. Remember, bidding wars for bodies hasn’t happened yet but they will happen. The initial salary depends on market forces. Costs control salaries and one’s competition controls what you charge per hour. Since competition keeps a lid on profit, mechanic wages are pretty much the same across the industry. So if you can’t outbid your competitor, try offering perks.
College degrees: Offer a two-year college education payable to A&P mechanics upon graduation. This will cost your company $1,142 in today’s dollars. That is not a misprint. The degree is available at Eastern New Mexico University at Roswell. It is a fully accredited state-run school. It involves taking four courses over the Internet and one can have an associate degree in aviation maintenance technology in a year. The tuition cost is low because ENMU grants 72 college credits for an A&P and the university is subsidized by the state. Don’t believe me? Here is the university web address: www.roswell.enmu.edu. Check it out yourself. Offer the same deal to your current employees. Free college degrees will serve as an incentive to keep your existing work force in your hangar for another year. For those mechanics who wish to get a four-year degree, some kind of tuition assistance is a good way to go.
Word of mouth. Even Harvard Business School agrees that word of mouth advertising is the most cost-effective means of advertising. Offer your existing employees a $1,500 bonus for each mechanic they bring into the fold, with another $500 if the new person stays for six months. This is the cheapest and most effective way of getting more mechanics in your front door short of offering a fat salary starting on Day 1.
Free safety meeting(s). You can attract locally based experienced mechanics and Part 147 students to your repair station by hosting a FAA safety meeting or IA renewal presentation at your facilities. Parts distributors, manufacturers, and FAA folks can be your program presenters. For about $1,500 for food and chairs you can draw 80 to 150 mechanics to your front door. Your company face can hand out informational packets, business cards, and in general do a “soft sell” on the attendees. Have some of your mechanic employees standing around in crisp company uniforms so they will be available to talk to attendees during the breaks. Short of word-of-mouth advertising — this is the cheapest way to tell the maintenance community about your organization.
Guardian angel. Your human resources department needs to focus on the human they are processing into the company. Imagine, if you will, that your repair station is in Barking Spider, MT, where the sky is always blue and they bring electricity in to town in 55-gallon drums. Now imagine that your new employee is from Northeast Philadelphia. The kid will go into cultural shock about 10 minutes after he arrives. So give him a guardian angel to ease the pain. Have someone meet him, brief him on the town, places of worship, supermarkets, gas stations, etc. Or give him a briefing book with kinds of information he will need plus a number he can call if he has a problem. Help him with housing and with jobs opportunities for his spouse. Make him feel special on Day 1 and he will become a valued and loyal employee. Assign a mentor at work for 30 days to help him through the adjustment period. On the other hand, if on Day 1 you make him feel like a No. 2, you will be looking for his replacement on Day 60.
Tool time. In my opinion many senior managers of large repair stations have no idea what a basic aviation toolbox costs. I guess they figure that the box is joined at the mechanic’s hip the moment he gets his A&P. What they don’t know is that the basic toolbox for a Part 147 school won’t cut it on today’s hangar floor, and the military wants its toolbox back when you leave. So our senior managers are amazed to learn that a good, basic roll-away/toolbox costs close to $5,000. Giving each new hire a new toolbox is a great hiring incentive but it might break the company’s piggy bank. However, I am sure your company, if it has at least 50 mechanics on board, can get a company discount at places like Sears, Home Depot, Husky, Snap-on, Lowes, etc.
Fleet discounts. A new hire needs wheels. A decent size repair station can get fleet discounts at the local car and truck dealerships. All it takes is to get a senior manager to take the time and cut a deal with the dealerships. Other than time and paperwork this costs the company zero. But the payback in goodwill from the employees is priceless. Again this is an effective recruitment tool as well as a good retention tool to keep existing employees happy.
Re-interview the new hire. After the mechanic is hired, the company face should have a one-, three-, and six-month interview with the new hire. Find out what his experiences, good or bad, have been with the company. Try to solve his problems if any. Learn from his experiences and adjust your tactical plan accordingly. What you are saying silently to the new hire at each of these interviews is that you are glad he is aboard and you value his opinion.
Training. Offer your prospect a factory school within the first 18 months. A week of factory training is the minimum, but a two-week offer is better. Mechanics love to work on the state-of-the-art aircraft and systems. This kind of training is a powerful inducement to sign on. When the mechanic does signs up, right then and there, give him a letter from the company president that he will have his training within the prescribed time or be paid a consolation fee.
Go electronic: Don’t forget the Internet! Many of your prospects will judge you (right or wrong) by the quality of your electronic face to the world. Invest in a web site that can represent you effectively to a generation whose first impression of you will come from a Google search.
Bill O’Brien died Nov. 9, 2008. He left two articles for AMT, totaling more than 180 maintenance articles that he wrote for the readers of AMT. We are honored that he used us as his platform for the industry.