Thin Gray Line: The industry needs new mechanics

The industry needs new mechanics.

This year I was honored to speak at 30 FAA IA meetings to 4,000+ mechanics, in cities that are as geographically diverse as Fairbanks, Alaska, is from Lakeland, Florida. Some of the IAs at these meetings told me they only came to the meeting just to be picked on by me. While that kind of false flattery warms my soul, the real truth is that the vast majority of mechanics would listen to a mime for eight hours to renew their IA rather than take the FAA's IA test all over again.

Even in cities 5,000 miles apart, one universal fact becomes readily apparent. The gray heads in the audience outnumbered the dark heads 10 to 1. Are we dying as a profession I wondered as I watched the thin gray line file in after a break. "Where are the younger mechanics to carry on once we retire?"

Wise men who have studied organizational design, have figured that the ideal mix of experience and talent in any professional field is one-third master journeymen, one-third able journeymen, and one-third apprentices. This mix is vital for a single organization or an entire career field to sustain itself. While, I am never mistaken for a wise man, based on what my eyes tell me, I estimate that the mix of active mechanics working in general aviation is 80 percent senior journeymen, 15 percent able journeymen, and 5 percent apprentice mechanics. At 61, I count myself in the 80 percent group.

America, we have a problem. In less than five to seven years we will lose 80 percent of our most experienced mechanics in all sectors of aviation maintenance because 40 years have passed and it is getting close to the time for the Viet Nam era mechanics to retire. Who is going to replace them? If we can no longer maintain what we build, how long can our industry, our profession, and our nation last?

What happened?

What has happened to our maintenance profession in the last 15 years, you ask? Who is to blame? The simple answer is the marketplace!!!!

Our aviation maintenance industry's volatility began shortly after the Air Line Deregulation Act of 1978. But, way back then, our industry average age for an IA was 39 and A&P schools were turning out 7,000 plus mechanics a year. From 1979 through 1987, we still had recessions and job scares but the industry kind of coasted along, feeding off of the false memory of security of now defunct Civil Aeronautic Board economic protectionism. That momentum came to a halt in the late '80s when the first of several large air carriers went under; names like Pan American, Eastern, Midway, Peoples Express, and New York Air, ceased to be. From 1988 to 1991 airlines crashed due to a whole host of new market factors and the inability to adapt to changing times. As each one died, they collectively dumped a surplus of 15,000 experienced mechanics into an already crowded workplace. These well-trained mechanics easily filled the gap in aviation maintenance positions caused by the Korea-era trained mechanics who were retiring.

In the years 1992 through 1994, large numbers of G.I. mechanics added to the surplus work force because of the downsizing of the military after the Gulf War. Not surprising, the supply exceeded demand, and with the cut back in commercial flying during and after the Gulf War, mechanic jobs were hard to find. Not only jobs were scarce but wages for mechanics stayed about the same for most of GA while the rest of the industry's pay scale climbed.

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