Survive - and Thrive - in Your Career
A practical guide for today’s aviation job market
By Greg Mellema
We’ve been hearing for some time now that aircraft mechanics are in short supply. With demand increasing, it seems pointless to discuss the topic of maintaining a competitive edge in the job market. If my skills are in high demand I won’t have any trouble getting the job (or promotion) I want—Right? Wrong. Most operations today are leaner and more efficient than in the past. They’ve been forced to become so in order to survive, and this often translates to fewer opportunities for promotion in the organization. This does not serve to reduce competition, but instead, creates a fiercely competitive environment.
Are you ready?
Does your resume stack-up against the competition? Are you content to let your career path blow randomly with the winds of change, or would you rather seize control of your destiny and begin dictating your own future? If you’re happy to let your career flap in the breeze, fine. But, if you’d rather chart a course for your career and optimize your chances for advancement, there are several steps you need to take in order to be successful.
How do you rate?
First of all, ratings are essential. If you don’t have both an Airframe and Powerplant certificate, get them. Even if you’re an engine specialist, having both ratings demonstrates to an employer your willingness to go the extra mile. So, jump through all the hoops, do your time in the various disciplines and earn your A&P. The skills you pick up along the way are invaluable; they serve to make you a knowledgeable, well-rounded mechanic.
If you’re just starting out in your aviation career, do not be tempted to "buy" your tickets at one of the quickie schools. You may think you’re doing yourself a favor, but seasoned mechanics can smell "bought" certificates. The stench is extremely offensive to them and you’ll find it very difficult to gain the trust of your peers.
If you’re preparing to leave the military and think you can simply parlay your military experience into a job, think again. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a cushy civil service job, you will need your A&P to get any kind of decent wage as a civilian aircraft mechanic. Even most military contractors now prefer certificated mechanics because they have recognized that A&Ps are more versatile and therefore more cost-effective.
The specialization advantage
Second, as human beings, it is a forgone conclusion that we can not perform all tasks with equal proficiency. The fact is, each of us is particularly good at some things, and not so good at others. Embrace this concept. Use it to your advantage. If you have a knack for engine work, focus on that. Learn all you can and gain a reputation as a real turbine-surgeon. If you prefer airframe structural work, strive to master the many skills necessary to be unequalled as a structures specialist.
But a caveat...
Specialization is highly effective as a marketing tool so long as you diversify within that specialty. It is possible to specialize yourself right out of a job. Imagine yourself as an employer with a diverse fleet trying to choose between two candidates for a job as an engine mechanic. They have the same number of years in the field, but one has experience only with Pratt & Whitney engines, while the other has experience with not only Pratt & Whitney, but General Electric and Rolls-Royce engines as well. Who would you hire? Assuming that the employer is not Pratt & Whitney, the second candidate is better suited for the job because he has not "over-specialized" himself.
Competence in all of the skills within your chosen specialty cannot be stressed enough. I frequently see airframe structural mechanics jeopardize their chances for advancement. Great sheet metal people have been traditionally hard to recruit, and they know it. Many believe that competence with sheet metal alone will guarantee their survival in the job market. These folks are in for a rude awakening. Advanced composite materials are not a passing fad — they are being used in more and more aircraft structures every day. These structures cannot be repaired using traditional sheet metal techniques. To remain competitive, these technicians must be proficient in repairing metallic and composite structures. If you need training, do whatever it takes to get it.
Distinguish yourself from the masses with a college degree. If you’re lucky, you had pushy, opinionated, working-class parents like mine who said, "You’d better go to college, you won’t get far without a degree!"
If you were smart, you took their advice. Look at it from a management point of view: An aviation-related (preferably four-year) degree is what separates those who have a career from those who simply have a job. It says that you’re serious about your future and encourages management to be serious about your future as well.
Evaluating education reserves
I’m sure there are good reasons for not pursuing a degree these days. I just can’t think of any at the moment. Money is available in the form of grants and scholarships. Failing that, anyone with a steady pulse can get a student loan. If there is no college or university in your town offering aviation-related degrees, several across the country have distance learning programs. This much I know for sure; at some point in your advancement, you will be required to have a degree. If you don’t already have one, get one. If you don’t want to get one, you’ll hear a loud banging sound. That’s your career experiencing a compressor stall.
Charting the course
There are several other steps you can take to establish yourself as a true aviation maintenance professional.
Become (or remain) computer literate - If you haven’t noticed the proliferation of laptops and other computer-based maintenance aids, then you’re just not paying attention. These things are here to stay and it is essential to possess basic computer skills in order to function in aviation today. If you lack basic computer skills, most community colleges have short, inexpensive courses designed to get you up to speed quickly.
Teach in a college aviation program - Another way to strengthen your resume is to teach in a college aviation program. Obviously, this can only be accomplished if you live near such a college. There is no better way to learn a subject and to know it "cold" than to teach it at the college level. Effective teaching requires that your knowledge and skill level be above the level at which the subject is being taught. This forces you to learn new subjects, and to research subjects you’re already familiar with more deeply. Just a few years teaching part-time can be of tremendous value to you on the hangar floor.
The journey begins with a single step
Without a doubt, there are many paths an aircraft mechanic can take to further their career. Everyone’s situation is different; but these are the basic survival tips that will set you well on your way to successfully navigating today’s aviation job market.
Greg Mellema has "survived" being an aircraft mechanic for over 16 years and holds an Airframe & Powerplant certificate as well as an Inspection Authorization (I.A.). He earned a B.S. degree in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is currently working on a double Masters degree in Aviation Safety and Aviation Management.
Mellema has worked in FBO’s, agricultural aviation, and air ambulance operations and spent 12 years running the airframe shop at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, AZ for the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command. He also taught the A&P program at Cochise College in Arizona for two years. Mellema has served the U.S. Army in a variety of capacities since 1985; he is currently assigned to G Company, 140th AVN, Nevada Army National Guard.
At present, Mellema is an instructor with Abaris Training in Reno, NV. Abaris conducts training in repair, fabrication, and design of advanced composite aircraft structures.