How Are Schools Facing Today’s Workforce Challenges?

July 12, 2018
And how will the industry get the aircraft technicians it needs?

The forecasts for the industry’s need for aircraft, mechanics, and pilots reflect aviation’s growth trend. The numbers from Boeing, Oliver Wyman, Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), and others show the importance of aviation training. The question is how will the industry get the aircraft technicians it needs?

A recent report from ATEC found that aviation maintenance technician schools produce about 60 percent of new mechanics and the military and on-the-job training account for the rest. In a report prepared for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association by Oliver Wyman and released at ARSA’s annual Legislative Day in March, the demand for aircraft mechanics will outstrip the available supply by 2022 (See (Also see Dr. Bill Johnson’s article in this issue.)

Aircraft Maintenance Technology talked to several Part 147 schools and MROs on the challenges and the solutions.

What Are The Challenges?

Challenges include the need to promote aircraft maintenance as a career, lack of resources, lack of students, and the difference in what the FAA mandates and what the curriculum should be for today’s aircraft. This spring, bills in the house (H.R. 5701) and senate (2506) were introduced in support of the curriculum change; schools and trade associations have been in support of the Part 147 changes for years.

“The biggest challenge we are facing today,” says Jeffrey Krein, AMT instructor, Northland Community and Technical College, in Thief River Falls, MN, “is that high school graduates don’t know that working on aircraft could be a career. By the time I see students at career fairs, they have already been told by their high school teachers that the only way to have a happy and secure future is to go to a four-year institution and receive a bachelor’s degree. Another challenge is lack of previous experience that we are seeing from the students. Fifteen to 20 years ago, most of our students grew up on the farm, worked on their first car, and/or had high school shop classes. Now we are finding that more and more students are in need of some very basic lessons on subjects that in the past would not have been discussed at all in our classes.” Most of Northland’s students are in the 18 to 27 age group with one or two returning adults."

Dennis Moehn, Fox Valley Technical College A&P instructor, agrees. “We can no longer assume that students have ever put a drill bit in to a drill motor before as an example. Another challenge is maintaining instructional equipment that is relevant to what our graduates will be working on in the field,” Moehn says. “A tear down PT6 turboprop engine currently sells for around $28,000. Manufacturers are reluctant to give equipment to colleges because they are worried the equipment will get back in to airworthy equipment.”

“I have been at Spartan College for seven years, and the challenge has remained the same: presenting aviation and aerospace as viable and in-demand career options to high school students as well as veterans, and adult populations,” says Ryan Goertzen, vice president of international development and the past president of ATEC. “So much of aviation is not apparent to the general public, and we must open the door to the array of career options that support our industry, beyond just the technician.” Spartan’s population is 45 percent returning adults, 35 percent young students, and 20 percent military veterans.

“The primary challenge,” says Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics’ director of marketing and IT Steven Sabold, “has been in finding ways to include current and/or new technologies, soft skills, and the human factors necessary to be a top quality technician, without further increasing the length or cost of the education for the student.”

“We have definitely noticed challenges with newer students that revolve around their communication skills and study habits, says Karen Jo Johnson, associate professor, Southern Illinois University Department of Aviation Technologies, Carbondale, IL. “Younger students fail to see the necessity in written and oral communication skills, which requires faculty to place a larger emphasis on those types of assignments in addition to the favored hands-on labs. Faculty struggle to get newer students to do something as simple as a reading assignment. Rather, students tend to want more just-in-time type training.” 

“The greatest challenge to today’s AMT student in many ways lies in the depth of the material to be covered in only 15 months,” says Michael Gross, director of college communications for Cape Cod Community College (CCCC), Plymouth, MA. “It is an intense learning schedule with vast amounts of material to absorb. Students who come into the program with a stronger background in the STEM world (science, technology, engineering, and math) do find it easier to begin. However the program is so detailed, that it offers success even to those willing to put in the time and effort who have not had the technical background.”

William Russo, University of the District of Columbia Community College aviation program director, says, “The biggest challenges that we face involve effectively preparing the next generation of AMTs for work in the industry, because there is disparity between the FAA’s mandated Part 147 curriculum, and the current needs of the industry. Organizations like ATEC are working hard to bring about legislative and regulatory changes which will help to better align Part 147 school curricula with industry needs, but in the meanwhile, we will continue to try and find balance between what the FAA says that our students need to learn and what the industry actually needs our students to learn.”

What Opportunities Is the Technician Shortage Creating?

“While the technician shortage is a problem facing the industry, it is creating excellent opportunities for our graduates,” says Chuck Horning, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) associate professor and department chairman. “Recent graduates have filled positions in manufacturing, MRO, corporate and commercial aviation, unmanned systems, and space. For the foreseeable future, graduates have an amazing opportunity to pretty much go anywhere they want in the industry.” The majority of ERAU students are high school graduates, the next largest groups are military veterans and transfer students. ERAU is headquartered in Daytona Beach, FL.

“The technician shortage has opened a very robust communication between the schools and the industry,” says Mark Holloway, Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM) corporate director of aviation programs. “Our schools are entering partnerships with major carriers, regional airlines, and manufacturers that guarantee access to graduates during their job search.” AIM is headquartered in Virginia Beach, VA, and has 11 locations.

Russo says, “The technician shortage has been great for small programs like ours at UDC. Some recruiters have even come out to visit our school and talk to our students about their company’s employment opportunities, which has made the process of placing our graduates in jobs much quicker and easier than it has been in the past.”

How Are You Attracting Students?

Promoting aviation as a career is an industrywide concern, and the aircraft maintenance schools have to get in front of students to promote the industry as well as their individual schools.

“The biggest competitor for students right now is the robust job market,” says CCCC’s Gross. “Very low unemployment means students likely are already working one or two jobs, and giving all that up for 15 months is very challenging.” The school is working to make its program more flexible for potential students by offering housing at the Bridgewater State University campus, and developing a hybrid model of the program where students would take classroom instruction online, and come to the facility only for hands-on instruction in the airframe and powerplant shops. This program is being created now, and should start in the fall, after gaining FAA approval.

As a public institution, CCCC offers federal financial aid to those who qualify. It also has a variety of private and organizational donors who offer scholarships to its students. “We work hard at helping students successfully address the cost of the program,” Gross says.

At UDC, Russo says, “We utilize social media and community outreach as our primary means of attracting new students, allowing students to see what we do firsthand. Many high school students who have never even considered a career in aviation become inspired after visiting our facility during a field trip.”

"As more individuals, especially in the secondary school system, become aware of the real shortage that has begun to take place in the skilled trades sector, it has started to become easier to attract students into our programs," PIA's Sabold says. "However, there is still a long way to go in fighting that perception, especially with some parents, that the opportunities for a successful career and the income to support a family and have a nice quality of life are not the rare, but the average for aviation technicians."

“Outreach to the younger generation, their parents, and school counselors is more important than ever,” says Sheryl Oxley, Tulsa Tech aviation program coordinator. “Tulsa Tech participates in many outreach and educational events such as Dream Out Loud, Summer Educator Academies, and elementary school career days. We also host events on our campus such as Junior High Engineering Challenges.” Tulsa Tech’s current enrollment is 119 full-time adults and 57 high school students.

“Attracting new students is our biggest challenge,” Northland’s Krein says. “We send a representative to all of the career fairs in a 100-mile radius of our college, but a good portion of the students we have is from word-of-mouth advertising. Our program would benefit from more advertising, but our current budget makes that very difficult if not impossible at this time.”

Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, WI, actively markets to all of the college’s programs at all of the high schools within its district. Moehn says 95 percent of the students entering the program finish and earn their degree and license. Approximately 75 percent of FVTC graduates remain in aviation.

Percentages of students that finish are also high for Southern Illinois University (90) and Northland (98). University of District of Columbia’s Russo says, “Roughly 65 percent of our students finish the AMT certificate program, earn their FAA certificate, and obtain employment in the aviation industry.”

What New Programs Are Being Offered?

Many of the schools interviewed mentioned new avionics programs to meet the needs of the industry. Cape Cod is creating an avionics/aircraft electrical technician program that it hopes to start this fall. ERAU offers an avionics minor. It consists of three courses and requires one additional semester to complete. The program is NCATT accredited and students can test for those certifications as well as certifications from the Electronics Technicians Association International. The University of District of Columbia has a new avionics program which includes both FCC GROL and NCATT AET.

Aviation Institute of Maintenance is opening its 12th facility in Charlotte, NC, toward the end of the year. Spartan is currently working on an A&P project that will standardize its program offerings across each of its campus locations. It acquired new campuses in Los Angeles in 2014 and Denver in 2016.

Other new programs are online offerings and unmanned aircraft systems courses. Northland added a Large Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) course six years ago and is now the leading UAS technician school in the United States. Spartan is now in its third year of offering a hybrid AMT program; it consists of 13 months online, followed by seven months in Tulsa, OK, and is branching out internationally. Southern Illinois University added an online BS degree in aviation maintenance management. It is designed for people working in aviation maintenance who may have never finished their bachelor's degree and don't have the ability to attend an onsite program. Students can receive credit for their A&P certificate and work experience and then add 10 online classes. SIU also plans to expand its existing unmanned aircraft program.

What Is Industry’s Role?

Industry involvement has greatly impacted student recruitment, the availability of internships, and the tools and equipment schools need. Companies that offer tours or equipment for training schools open the door to ideas for  career choices and future employment. And many schools have advisory boards to keep up on the latest trends and industry needs.

“Our schools work closely with the local airlines, repair stations, and manufacturers in order to form those partnerships in order to provide the workforce they need,” says AIM’s Holloway. “We also have national agreements with several of the airlines. We host two program advisory committee meetings each year. The PAC members review our curriculum, library holdings, equipment, and facility.”

“We have a great relationship with local industry,” says Tulsa Tech’s Oxley. “They are happy to serve on our advisory committee and have been an important part in our program’s success. We acquire donations from them frequently. They participate in mentoring and periodic training of our students and, occasionally, our staff. We hold an annual mock interview day where we get industry personnel on site to interview our students and give them a live perception and feedback on how they can improve their resume and interview skills.”

ERAU’s Horning says, “We have been fortunate to have a number of excellent relationships with industry. The department is one of the Delta Air Lines partner schools. Additionally, a number of industry partners have worked with us to establish internship programs.”

The lack of new aircraft and components is a common challenge for aviation schools.

“While finding willing participation in the advisory committee is not difficult,” Southern Illinois University’s Johnson says, “obtaining the necessary equipment donations to support our lab environment is. We are constantly faced with decreases in state funding and a lack of widespread aviation industry involvement so we are always actively searching for donations.” 

Northland’s Krein says, “We have found obtaining new equipment and training aids difficult. Our school is very fortunate in that we have a large variety of aircraft and equipment for the students to work with and we have been able to maintain our level of excellence with some new equipment. Unfortunately, we have not been able to procure new aircraft for student training as quickly as we would like and we look for every opportunity to get donations of, and purchase new (to us) aircraft to replace the aircraft that are getting to the end of their useful life as training aids.” 

What Does the Future Hold?

With support from industry associations like ATEC, ARSA, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and others, and the push from 147 schools, passage of the bills in congress will go a long way in making aircraft technician training what it needs to be to fill the industry’s workforce needs.

“Most are familiar with the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child,” says Russo, “and this proverb holds true with regard to the training of AMTs as well. The looming technician shortage is not an AMT school problem or an employer problem, it is an industry problem, and we need to come together as an industry in order to solve it. If you are an employer of AMTs but are not currently partnering with an AMT school (at least informally), then please reach out to your local school and open a dialogue to see how you may work together to meet the needs of future AMTs. Please take the first step, as the school may be operating on a shoe-string budget with minimal staffing (especially if it is a public school), and may not have the resources to reach out to you. Let’s work together, so that the next generation of AMTs can aspire, accomplish, and take on the world.”

About the Author

Barb Zuehlke | Past Senior Editor | AMT