Making the Grade
NBAA forum focused on training programs' "room for improvement"
By Melissa Roglitz
Ask and sometimes you get lucky and receive. Sometimes, you have to ask again and again, rephrasing the question each time. And sometimes you don't know what you should ask for; you just know something needs to change. Thus is the story with maintenance training.
In October of 1999, at the NBAA Maintenance Management Conference in Orlando, FL, a forum was held to discuss possible improvements in maintenance training courses. Leading the forum were Jim West and Leonard Beauchemin, chairman and vice chairman of the NBAA Maintenance Committee, respectively. The forum was born of a survey done at an earlier NBAA maintenance conference which defined maintenance training as the number one problem in flight operations that the Maintenance Committee could help with. The purpose of the Orlando forum was to bring maintenance training to the forefront and put it under the bright lights, where all of its flaws and strong points would be more visible.
The road of change must start somewhere, and this forum marked the beginning of positive improvements for maintenance training. The customers spoke, and the training companies and OEMs, it appears, listened.
"It's tough to get people to change if they don't think it's broke, so what we're trying to do is convince people, 'Look, maybe you don't think it's broke, but isn't this a better way to do it? If it's better, why aren't we doing it?'" asks West of Philip Morris Management Corp.
NBAA Corporate Operators identified eight main areas of concern: course length, course content, instructional aids, course development, course selection, knowledge testing, instructors, and course critiques. Following are the descriptions of the concern areas as well as proposed solutions by the Maintenance Committee.
Currently, maintenance courses are a one-time, four- to five-week event, teaching as much information as possible in that time period. This goes against the human laws of knowledge retention.
"Really it makes no difference what type of training you're in. If you're sitting in the classroom hour after hour after hour, you lose your attention span," says West. "We're not saying that there may not be that much information that needs to be taught. What we're saying is that if you try and teach it all at the same time, that the retention is going to be such that it's not beneficial to the student.
"We need to pay attention to studies that have been done in the education field that talk to learning saturation and things like that. We need to be mindful of those principals."
Cutting course length does not mean a company should cut a technician's total training time. Instead, a company could break up a technician's time away from the hangar by sending him or her to two, two-week courses, not the current one, four-week course. A cut in course length can translate into a cut in company expenses, as well.
"It cuts the costs down, not only the up-front costs in terms of the hotel, the per diem, the food and the meals, and all that stuff, but the time away from the hangar. There aren't a lot of companies out there who are over-staffed that can tolerate that; however, there is no way that the industry can tolerate not training," West commented.
FlightSafety's Director of Maintenance Standards Mike Lee reports that FlightSafety agrees with the Maintenance Committee's need for shorter courses.
"We are in the process of a three-year re-weighting of our courses, which took 10 years of input from our customers. They (courses) will be decreased in length. We're using the Northwest study that re-evaluated the task analysis of the A&P," Lee said.
Focusing course information on everyday tasks and needed skills is the key to creating a sturdy learning base for the student. Teach them how to crawl, then walk, then run. The learning process shouldn't begin with running, hoping some of the students will be able to do it right away and the others will eventually catch up.
"When you look at the typical four- to five-week course, there is a lot of minutia, that really doesn't - I think - need to be taught in the depth they're attempting to teach it.
"The course length and the course content tie together. When you look at the course content, which really talks to the minutia, if you focus your training on the things that will be directly applicable when you get back to the hangar, I believe in my heart of hearts you can trim those four- to five-week courses down to two weeks, maybe a couple of days more than two weeks. Certainly you can shave them quite a bit, and then when you do go back for training you can hit completely different areas like troubleshooting, areas of maintenance that really aren't covered very well or not at all in the training program such as non-destructive testing, corrosion control, those types of things," said West.
A greater selection of knowledge and skill courses need to be offered to allow for specialization and career growth of technicians.
"Because most of what a lot of people do in aviation are very isolated tasks or a group of tasks in an isolated area, technicians have a tendency to think that they have become limited in their ability to move. They don't look at the industry as being a career organization," commented Leonard Beauchemin of Eastman Kodak Co. and vice chairman of the NBAA Maintenance Committee.
He continued, "Let's look at the entire industry as an organization, then I can say I have career opportunities because then I can move into marketing, and I can move into sales, and I can move into field service, and I can move into product design or engineering.
"To move into any of those other fields — you need certain skills." Negotiating, interactive skills, presentation/communication skills, and coaching skills are skill sets needed to advance in the aviation industry.
"That's the kind of training that I say is missing," said Beauchemin.
And if a company doubts the benefits of communication training for its technicians, Beauchemin says to consider this:
"Technicians do contribute to the growth of a business because any communication you allow a technician to have outside of your organization can either contribute to your business or detract from it."
When questioned about whether general business classes should be included in a technician's training, Beauchemin says, "Absolutely. My guys spend more money than anything. What's the single largest controllable cost in a flight department? Maintenance. You live and die by it. It's a controllable expense.
"If the airplane comes back at 10 o'clock at night and it's broken and needs a part, my people have to buy parts. That means they have to pick up the telephone and they have to start asking questions. You don't want to pay the most. They call and they negotiate. You can't be belligerent. You have to be tactful enough to ensure they're not leading you down the garden path. You have to have some basic business understanding. There are modules of business education that I think are key to technician development."
Course development, the Maintenance Committee notes, should be designed to meet the needs of daily operations, inspections, technician progression, and information-data management.
A more hands-on approach combined with an appropriate class size for hands-on training would achieve this goal. Also, using the maintenance manual as the principle reference when developing the course would make each course more valuable to the technician and more "life-like."
Aircraft maintenance manuals are the only legal source of information in the field, so why are they not the only "textbook" in training?
"Typically, the manuals, the way they're written and laid out are not conducive to the learning environment," says West. "All I've got to work with in the field is the maintenance manual. I can't legally use the training manual. You can't go back to your notes because they're illegal."
He continues, "So what we're (NBAA Maintenance Committee) trying to do is get the manufacturers to understand that they must write the maintenance manuals in such a way that they are conducive to training because the training school is not the only time a mechanic has to train. They have to train themselves when they don't do a particular thing for a period of time. So what are they going to do? Are they going to run back to school again? They have to open up this manual and they have to fight their way through it."
With a lack of regulations spelling out the qualifications of instructors, it is up to training companies to determine who is qualified to teach and who is not. These instructors may know this information like the back of their hands, but can they effectively communicate that information to the class?
"We've got a specification provided by ATA. They put out a specification for training, but it's hardly detailed. There is no association that digs deeper and helps teachers to put that into a tangible product," says West.
He continues, "The other problem is that there are no qualifications, no formal qualifications for a maintenance instructor. So they don't, in fact I don't know any that do, have any formal education in the field of education. So just simply knowing the subject material doesn't mean that you can communicate that information effectively. That's a big problem."
West adds, "We're trying to encourage the training companies to teach their instructors how to instruct. When they're interviewing an instructor, they'll put this instructor in front of a class with representatives from the company and critique the person's performance, but what's the credentials of the critiquers?"
FlightSafety believes, also, that in order to be a successful training company, instructors must be highly qualified.
"I think it's a fair statement that (instructor qualifications) used to be a problem. Our current requirements for instructors are 10 years of industry experience, five years of heavy jet, and two years of training. The coming-in standards have been raised, and it's harder to get to be an instructor today than it used to be (at FlightSafety)," Lee points out.
"The purpose of knowledge testing," West claims, "is to find out where someone is strong and weak -Ênot so you can punish a person; it's so you can retrain or focus training more in that area. The goal is to have this person retain and understand that information. You can't fix it if you don't know what's broke - it doesn't make a difference if it's a technician or an airplane."
FlightSafety, Lee explains, requires students obtain the same minimum that has been established by the FAA: 70 percent.
"If they've been participating in our master technician program, which we encourage everybody to to do, that's the step up, and they have to complete all levels of the training at 90 percent."
"Once again," Lee explains, "we raised the mark. We have to have (stringent standards). It's the only way to move everybody up, raise the level of professionalism."
Currently, most training schools require student technicians fill out a course critique form at the end of a class. It's the last thing they do before they're "out of there," so there is a bit of uncertainty about how truthfully, completely, and critically these forms are filled out.
"Most people are looking to get out of there after four weeks, and 'Yeah, yeah, everything's great, goodbye.' That's not good enough if you're trying to find the problem. You need to sit down and debrief. You need to ask strategic questions. Sometimes you have to ask the question three times but in different ways. And you need to be in a position where you can challenge the answer," West believes.
FlightSafety, realizing the need for more in-depth critiques, telephones a sample population of their students for follow-up interviews. This analysis helps the training company fill its students' needs more efficiently.
After the forum
"Each one of the vendors goes away and tries to implement certain things, but I think they're in a quandary right now as to how to fix it. We didn't basically get them in a room, use harsh language with them and say fix it and walk away. What we've done is we've created a kind of partnership," West said of the forum's impact on maintenance training in the aviation industry.
The NBAA Maintenance Committee has formed a subcommittee to more comprehensively address the issues that were discussed at the forum and the possible solutions. Jim Jainitis of IBM, who is chairing the subcommittee, will work hands-on with the training companies, the OEMs, and businesses wishing to see improvements in the maintenance training division of the aviation industry.
West continues, "We're going to keep on pushing. Like I said, we're not taking a hands-off approach to this. We're going to continue with the working group. We're going to continue to align ourselves with the industry, and work through this thing.
"We're trying to stay in line with the industry, but at the same time push the envelope a little. All of the input I've gotten from the aircraft manufacturers is that we're right on. In the past, I think, they felt it was very convenient. They could sell the airplane and they took a hands-off approach to it. With the explosion of growth in this business the manufacturers are now having to maintain airplanes. I think they're seeing the impact of the training on their ability to do that, so now they're becoming advocates of this."
Voluntary change or regulation?
Can we count on training providers to do this on their own or do we need to regulate?
West would like to see training companies take the initiative to improve themselves: "I'm not advocating FAA involvement at all. I would like to think that people who are smart enough to be in the business would see it for what it is and just do it."
FlightSafety has shown that initiative: "We are absolutely open to improvements," says Lee, "and we're whole-heartedly behind them. We participate on the advisory boards for most every manufacturer just to gather this kind of information. I would encourage everyone in the industry to do the same thing."