Thin Gray Line: The industry needs new mechanics

The industry needs new mechanics.

This cold economic fact was not lost on the high school seniors in 1994 that were looking to enter one of the many technical fields available. Aviation still carried with it the promised magic of flight, and the added allure of working on multimillion dollar, high-tech aircraft. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that money makes the world go around, and these high school kids knew at the time there were no jobs in aviation maintenance so they chose other professions in CFI (callous free industries).

As bad as these early '90s marketplace roller coaster rides the mechanics were on, even more severe was the pain the Part 147 schools had to endure. Unlike the 200 hours, required to train a commercial pilot, it takes between 1,900 to 2,200 hours to train a new mechanic. So even in good times, a Part 147 A&P school is always 18 months behind the demands of the marketplace. So, after the end of Gulf War, and a slowing economy, the majority of Part 147 schools started to cut back on classes and instructors, due to low student enrollment.

These years, 1992 through 1996, marked the first serious decline in the number of new A&P student starts and in my opinion it was the beginning of the longest decline in the numbers of younger mechanics entering into our career field.

Around the last quarter of 1996, the aviation industry took off, when our economy bounced back. New start-up carriers were being added, oil was $24 a barrel, and the surplus of mechanics of the early '90s worked itself down into a deficit. Now, the Part 147 schools were hard pressed to fill the demand for more mechanics. With the industry moving again neither the Part 147 schools or the military could fill the demand for mechanics overnight, so outsourcing heavy maintenance to other countries became an option for the air carriers. This new source of cheap, well-trained labor abroad further lowered the demand for new homegrown mechanics.

9-11 and the fear of flying

Next bump in the road came on 9-11 when the flying public, watching the destruction of the NY twin towers, no longer thought of commercial and general aviation as a transportation system, but now those same aircraft were seen as weapons of mass destruction. Almost immediately the industry experienced the loss of public confidence and the fear of flying went to a whole new level. Shortly thereafter our recovery was stalled when our industry fortunes were inversely proportional to the soaring price of oil. So for the last three years, the airline industry has been experiencing the economic volatility worthy of a Mexican TV melodrama.

So what are we going to do about it?

First, what is the present status of the maintenance industry? My research says that corporate aviation is by far the healthiest with respect to decent jobs and wages. Next in line are the large and middle size repair stations, followed by the regional airlines, then the large airlines, and last is general aviation. While many of the large established airlines pay more than the corporations or repair stations, I placed them next to last because of the current job insecurity and latest reductions in pay. But even the healthiest organization will be fighting hard to fill mechanic positions within the next five to seven years.

So what do we fix first? Answer: Fix the problem that is common to all. That problem is the lack of new mechanics entering our career field. But we must address the causes behind the problem such as the decline of number of Part 147 schools. We have a total of approximately 172 Part 147 schools. I say approximately because some are operating at minimum capacity. Most of the ones that are in trouble are part of state-operated community colleges. The bean counters at the schools run the math and correctly figure that costs of operating with low student enrollments exceed the benefits and based on the math, they either start to close down the school or reconfigure it to teach other technical subjects. They fail to see the long-term effects of their actions on our industry. Each time we lose a school, we bleed a little.

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