Aircraft Maintenance Technician Outlook

Over the years and decades most of us have heard the prediction, there’s an aircraft mechanic shortage coming. Yet the industry seems to get by and this wholesale shortage of AMTs, at least here in North America has not yet occurred. One can speculate any number of factors contribute to this shortage not yet occurring; the cyclic nature of the industry; recently the global economic recession; mergers and acquisitions; displaced AMTs taking jobs in different segments of aviation. One can also speculate that these same factors apply to many legacy industries not only aviation, careers once viewed as stable with low-turnover. So when will the prediction of an AMT shortage become reality? Some information predicts it’s finally approaching or already here.

Let’s begin with some demographic information taken from a recent AMT readership survey with responses from various segments of aviation; airline maintenance, general aviation maintenance, business aircraft maintenance, and the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and repair station segments. One question on the survey was short and simple, “What is your age group?” For those of us on the far right side of the chart (purple and turquoise bars) this is probably no surprise. See Figure 1 above.

What factors account for the small numbers on the left side of the chart? Granted this is only one small sampling and does not represent the ages of all AMTs today, but it does prompt a few questions. Are there currently no aircraft maintenance jobs for young people? Or does this suggest that aircraft maintenance is not a desired career choice today?

Many people beginning their career journey have probably witnessed family members or friends becoming unemployed due to company downsizing, lack of business, airline mergers, other corporate decisions out of their control, or people who have moved into careers other than aviation. We have also heard negative (and I feel unfortunate) comments from our peers such as, why would I tell my kids to work in aviation? There are competing career choices, many with promise of better pay, benefits, or job security. Valid reasons for young people to be cautious when considering an aviation career.

Using the industry data available

There is no crystal ball we can gaze into that will show the better career choice, but we can learn and understand as much about the aviation industry as possible. Industry analysis, forecasts, reports, trends, opinions, and news are available, and a search of the internet will result in piles of data that can be used in making educated career decisions. Much of today’s data suggests there is a future in choosing an aviation career. However, it will not be the same experience as those of us on the right side of the demographic chart.

To provide some framework on the aircraft maintenance industry, I visited the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) website. In August 2009 ARSA published a report titled Global MRO Market Economic Assessment, which was prepared by AeroStrategy for ARSA. The conclusion provides some scale of the current MRO and repair station segment. Paraphrased the report says there are approximately 480,000 employees within more than 4,800 firms worldwide participating in the civil MRO supply chain. Nearly 80 percent of these firms are small to medium size companies.

Globally, there are more than 290,000 technicians; 24 percent of which are FAA-certificated. In the United States, there are 4,200 firms with more than 200,000 employees. Small to medium size companies make up 85 percent and account for 21 percent of all employees. There are more than 145,000 technicians in the United States and approximately half are FAA-certificated. These repair stations include all segments of aviation and all types of aircraft maintenance services.

Aircraft delivery forecasts as an indicator

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) 2011 General Aviation Statistical Databook & Industry Outlook market review summarizes 2011 new general aviation (GA) deliveries as not yet rebounding to levels seen during better economic times. The introduction states there are more than 320,000 general aviation aircraft worldwide, ranging from two-seat trainers to intercontinental business jets. The report states there are more than 223,000 active GA aircraft in the United States in all segments, including types such as Lighter-than-Air, Gliders, Experimental, and Light Sport Aircraft.

No surprise the group with the largest number of aircraft is Single Engine with more than 155,000. Interestingly, the next largest segment is Experimental-Amateur Built, followed by Turbo Jet, Rotorcraft, and Turboprop. The 20-year forecast for all GA aircraft shows growth in the United States up to nearly 271,000 aircraft by the year 2031. The report also states that just over half of the aircraft produced in the U.S. are exported supporting the fact that aviation continues to rapidly emerge in developing regions around the world. Although this forecast reflects only modest growth in total, GA will continue to be a vital part of the global aviation industry. Many people of my generation began their careers in GA and continue their involvement even though they have moved on to other aviation careers.

Embraer, the Brazilian manufacturer of business jet and commercial airline aircraft of 120 seats and less, forecasts in a July 2012 press release that the world air-transport demand will require 6,792 new jet deliveries in the 30- to 120-seat capacity over the next 20 years. North America will lead the deliveries followed by Europe and China. Included in with the Europe deliveries is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which is comprised of Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey.

Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of business jets and commercial airline aircraft, forecasts that 24,000 business jet aircraft (in all segments which Bombardier competes) will be delivered over the next 20 years. This forecast anticipates North America will receive nearly 9,500 of these aircraft, followed by Europe, with China being the third largest market. On the commercial airliner side, Bombardier forecasts 12,800 deliveries in the 20- to 149-seat commercial aircraft. Again, it predicts North America will lead the way, but in this case followed by China.

Last month the Boeing Company released its Current Market Outlook 2012-2031 which anticipates the global airline industry will need 34,000 airplanes; essentially doubling today’s worldwide fleet size. The forecast goes on to say 41 percent of these will replace older less efficient airplanes, and 59 percent will be growth. The report states that over the next 20 years the world’s airlines will need 601,000 aircraft maintenance technicians. Other interesting points, new-generation airplanes will dominate the world fleet, reliability will improve, and maintenance check intervals will be lengthened. New-generation aircraft will have new and different maintenance philosophies and different maintenance requirements than older fleets. The report goes on to say that currently many emerging markets in the world recruit already-trained personnel from outside their region. However, in the years ahead they will need to develop a foundation for training qualified technicians directly from within their regions.

As for the regions of the world aircraft maintenance technicians will be needed, the Boeing report predicts the Asia/Pacific region will need the most, followed by Europe, North America, and Latin America.

Can conclusions be drawn

One can argue that today’s data may not necessarily be tomorrow’s reality, but lacking that crystal ball, you can use today’s data to form your own conclusions; even these few data points begin to paint a picture. Based on the forecasted volume of new aircraft deliveries, there will be an increasing demand for aircraft maintenance technicians worldwide. Adding in the demographics of the current AMT workforce (at least in North America) further suggests the AMT shortage may be approaching. These simple conclusions do prompt more questions, such as why some AMT schools in this country struggle with enrollment and some have closed. What involvement should regulators, academia, and industry have in this discussion? All subjects better left for separate discussions.

The AMT career of the future will not be the same as it is today, or as it was for many of us yesterday — but the data suggests it is there. New-generation aircraft will require technicians to continually develop new skills; holding an A&P certificate alone may get you in the door, but continuing education and knowledge will be key factors to the career-minded AMT. Some future career opportunities may require you to spend time or relocate overseas. Effective communication skills, learning another language, or learning about other cultures would all be beneficial when preparing for this career track. Regardless of your career choice, the advice from many is to be prepared for what comes next.

Ron Donner has held both technical and management roles in general aviation and during his 27 years with Northwest Airlines. He holds FAA certificates as an A&P/IA and a commercial pilot.

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