Learning Never Stops
A reminder to keep striving
By Bill de Decker
When my college days were done, so were my days of sitting in classrooms and reading textbooks - or so it seemed. Talk about being wrong! Within a month, I was back in the local college library reading up on how to analyze satellite orbits, and within a few more weeks, I was learning about computers and programming. It's been that way ever since. In fact, learning never stops - certainly not if you want to get ahead and have some level of job security in a very uncertain world.
There are many reasons to keep on learning, particularly in a rapidly changing field like aviation. The obvious ones are just to keep up with new aircraft, new engines, and new avionics. Others include understanding how the new technologies of the computer, the Internet, wireless communication, composite materials, etc., can and will change your job, or expanding your own knowledge in areas such as business management, marketing and programming, or learning how to make good presentations and well-written reports. Now, you may well say, "Who cares if I keep on learning?" Actually, in many companies, management cares a great deal - but they may never tell you that. Instead, they keep their eye on the employees that not only do good work but who also are improving their knowledge and skills. And those are the people that get first crack at the opportunities. In fact, I owe my career in business aviation to the fact that I had become good at making presentations. My boss at the time didn't like to make presentations, and once he found out I did a better job, he turned all speaking assignments over to me. This opportunity opened all sorts of doors with my then-employer, and when layoffs threatened, this skill led directly to a new and better job.
Timing is all wrong
Similarly, you might say: "I don't have the time!" And, if you have a family and a house, that can be a real challenge. But that doesn't mean it can't be done. Just one hour a day will make a big difference. For example, consider that each hour of college class time requires one hour of homework time. This means that a typical college course, which requires three hours of class time per week, would require an additional three hours of homework time for a total of six hours per week - less than one hour per day. And, not all learning involves going back to a classroom. A person can get just as much from reading books and magazine articles. A typical book will take five to 10 hours to read and will provide you with a great deal of information. At an hour a day, you'll finish that book in a week or two. In short, just an hour a day adds up quickly if you discipline yourself to use it for learning.
Most people in our business have a good technical education. Unfortunately, for most people, that's also where the education stops. That is a shame, because, while it is obviously important to know how to troubleshoot an electrical system or overhaul a propeller, it is just as important to the long-term health of the organization to know how to prepare a budget, sell the organization's services, and set up a customer database. The good news is that these are all subjects you can learn on your own, using a combination of courses offered by local and distance learning colleges, professional development courses, seminars and workshops sponsored by the various trade associations, and reading of books and magazines.
Three steps to big dividends
Based on the observations of Conklin and de Decker Associates and dealings with numerous aviation organizations, I would recommend three areas - business and marketing; computers; and presentation and writing skills - where continuing education, formal or informal, will pay big dividends.
Business and marketing
Like it or not, a business that does not have sufficient customers or doesn't make a profit will not stay in business long. The problem is that most technical people don't know much about business or marketing and most business types don't know enough about the technical aspects of the business. This can lead to all kinds of confusion, expense, and lost opportunity. If you have a good understanding of the business and the technical, you can help both sides of the house develop a better understanding of each other's needs and help all to be more successful. Remember, most business failures are not the result of poor ideas or lack of hard work. Instead, they are the direct result of a poor grasp of business fundamentals.
Almost all colleges offer marketing and business classes and degrees. Of course, most of these are not geared to the aviation business, but that doesn't mean the materials aren't applicable. It just means that as you are listening to the teachers and studying the books, you have to ask yourself, "How does that apply to the aviation business?" or "What would be an example in my business?" A number of colleges, Embry Riddle and University of North Dakota foremost among them, have excellent programs geared to the business side of aviation operations and maintenance. And, more and more, these programs are available at satellite campuses or by mail or through the Internet. Some of the trade associations also offer good maintenance management courses. The cost ranges from moderate to expensive; however, many employers have either a formal or informal program of paying tuition. Even if they don't, they may be quite willing to help if you show management how it will help make you a more valuable employee.
There are also many good books on these subjects. Two of my personal favorites are The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker and Customers for Life by Carl Sewell. Drucker's book is the best general treatise on what it is to be a manager that I have read (and I read a lot). It takes a little concentration, but will reward you with insights such as, "The purpose of management is to get and keep customers." The other book is written by a successful Dallas car dealer and gives new meaning to the term customer service. Both are available in paperback through any major bookstore as well as through Amazon.com.
Another book, specifically written for aviation management, is titled Essentials of Aviation Management by J.D. Richardson, J.F. Rodwell, and P. Baty. Although it is focused on the FBO business, the knowledge it contains is applicable to the management of any aviation business. This book can be obtained through Amazon.com.
It is not a matter of "if" but "when" we will not be able to conduct the aircraft maintenance business without primary reliance on computers. My guess is that the day is a lot closer than many seem to think. The reasons are simple. First, use of the computer and the Internet is an inexpensive and very fast way to distribute maintenance information, provide online troubleshooting and help. Second, most newly designed aircraft allow use of laptop computers to retrieve system problems encountered in flight and run diagnostics. And third, a computer is the only really effective way to track and record all maintenance requirements.
Unfortunately, our observation is that a very large percentage of aviation maintenance and operations personnel don't know much about computers beyond using them for routine tasks. There is a premium on personnel that understand the Windows® or Windows NT® operating systems, how to set up and troubleshoot a network, and how to use the Internet. As many of you may know, Conklin and de Decker Associates develop a maintenance management software program, and this lack of knowledge is a never-ending source of problems and frustrations for both our customers and us. If you already have the required level of knowledge, become involved in your organization's computerization efforts. If you don't, take some courses. Many local colleges offer a variety of computer courses at all levels, from beginner to expert. The cost is usually moderate, and the rewards will be substantial. Besides, for a technical person, the computer holds few secrets and a lot of enjoyment.
Presentation and writing skills
Very few schools and colleges require their students to acquire these skills and that is a pity, because not having them holds back a lot of very capable people. The best ideas in the world will not go anywhere without someone to articulate them clearly and concisely. The skills required to accomplish this are not magical. They can be learned, but it takes time and practice to become good at them. Most colleges and junior colleges offer writing and public speaking courses. In addition, Toastmasters is an organization designed to help people become better public speakers. With these programs, more so than with other courses, what you get out of them is in direct proportion to what you put into them. The harder you work, the more you practice, the better you get. You probably will never speak with the power of a Martin Luther King or a Winston Churchill, but you will be able to make a good presentation to a prospect or write a winning proposal.
There are two ingredients to developing your career. One is to do the best job you can on the assigned work. The other is to never stop learning.