Thin Gray Line: The industry needs new mechanics

The industry needs new mechanics.

The warm and fuzzy folks might say: "Oh, so we lose a school or two, so what, we can count on ex-military mechanics to take up the slack after they come back from the Iraqi war." Well you can forget about it. The military is not in a position to save our bacon again. They have their own mechanic retention problems. I pulled up a news clip off the Internet that said on Jan. 30 of last year the Blue Angels, the Navy's flight demonstration team, announced there was a shortage of qualified applications for mechanics for its 2005 season. That one sentence says it all. Plus every school we lose, we lose $3 million in aviation education infrastructure because it takes approximately $3 million to start up a new Part 147 school.

So now what? I am reminded of what former Speaker of the House and fellow Irishman, Tip O'Neill said: "All politics is local." What he meant was, that before an issue becomes a national problem it must first be identified as a local problem and receive local support to solve that problem. Once identified, then that problem is moved up through the system to the city, state, or federal levels of government where the problem can be addressed.

For example, we have the results of a hundred different studies performed by industry and the federal government that identified the shortages of aviation mechanics as far back as the DOT 1993 Blue Ribbon Study titled: Pilot and Maintenance Technicians for the Twenty-First Century." That report and every report since stated the same conclusion, that the effects of a shortage of mechanics on a multibillion dollar aviation industry are incalculable.

But the word "incalculable" is just too hard a concept for the local citizen to understand, and they did not "see" a problem, so the warnings went unheeded. However, if in a year or two, down at the local airport, there are daily incidents of regional jets that cannot make a flight because there is no mechanic to fix a grounding item, then "incalculable" becomes a real word and a local problem to the 50 people who missed their connecting flights. Or worst yet, the word "incalculable" might be a smoking hole in the ground because the flight was made despite that the needed maintenance was not performed.

But, the timeline to solve this problem is short. So we need to get both local and national industry attention on this coming shortage of maintenance personnel and not wait for a smoking hole. At the local level, I urge the alumni of A&P schools to support their schools with monetary gifts and other offers of support. For those schools that are in serious trouble, the alumni can write or visit their local, city, and state representatives and educate them on the importance of aviation mechanics and the schools that train them.

But don't stop at just the bureaucrats, each alumni mechanic needs to educate local repair stations, airlines, and FBOs that they will be in for even tougher times ahead when there are no toolboxes on the hangar floor. We must convince them all that Part 147 schools are economic growth poles that serve as a lightning rod that attracts new industry and growth into an area.

For you old gray heads that are semi-retired, here's an idea. Why not offer your services to high school shop teachers pro bono as a technical assistant and show the younger kids what aircraft mechanics can do. Maybe you can even convince the wood shop instructor to build an airplane as a class project instead of making a set of matching salt and pepper shakers.

We as individual mechanics have to get one on one with the young. We have to show them the magic behind this profession of ours. Let's show them how a trained mechanic can take ordinary materials like steel, wood, and aluminum and make and maintain a machine that can fly!

At the national level, the industry trade and membership organizations that represent maintenance, pilots, FBO, corporate, repair stations, and regional and national air carriers better start to address this coming mechanic shortage as soon as possible. May I recommend at least a preliminary meeting to explore possible solutions to the mechanic shortage to take place at the Aviation Industry Week Convention, in Las Vegas, Nevada, that runs from March 8 to 10. At least three issues should be addressed at this first meeting. First how do we attract young people to our profession? Second, how do we keep Part 147 schools in operation? Third, how do we retain good mechanics? I will also be in Las Vegas in March giving FAA seminars at the convention. I am ready to help. Will I see you there? Better hurry, the thin, gray line is getting smaller.

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