Where Do We Get Them?

Feb. 6, 2006
There is a fast-growing shortage of really good, qualified mechanics who can service and repair the ever more complex ground equipment that runs around on our ramps.

There is a fast-growing shortage of really good, qualified mechanics who can service and repair the ever more complex ground equipment that runs around on our ramps. The domestic aircraft mechanics seem to be a dying breed too, but here the companies are happy to outsource the work to distant lands where people are not afraid to get their hands dirty and accept a pay level we would starve on. With GSE, it is a different story. It is harder to drive a widebody pushback tug to Central America or Asia to get the oil changed than to ferry a B747 or A330 aircraft there.

You notice I use the term mechanic instead of the PC term technician. I know it horrifies some to be considered anything but a technician. Technicians have delicate hands, speak in tongues and handle nothing over five pounds in weight. Mechanics occasionally have to hang on a 3/4-inch drive breaker bar to get some recalcitrant nut to come loose or actually have to crawl under a dripping diesel to find the source of an oil leak. Usually you find it when it drips in your hair. I have even seen some mechanics wielding large mallets! So crude! Indeed some have been seen using torches and hammering on bent railing and frames on a loader-lifer that some rampie tested against a wing flap.

Of course we do need mechanics who can understand a logic diagram and figure out which of the 24 interlocks is stopping the deicing rig from heating and pumping or why the aircraft will not accept ground power from this unit or why the loading bridge will not elevate or why it did when it shouldn’t have and has bent an aircraft door. “Fly by wire” is aircraft technology but check a loading bridge and you will realize it steers by wire too. And the mechanic fixing the loading bridge probably got a lot less training than the aircraft mechanic did.

How to Get Them

Actually my pitch here is that we, us, the managers, supervisors, and yes, mechanics, have got to sell this profession we are in. Some of it starts by signing up for career days at local schools. Some schools are reluctant to have some “grubby profession” like GSE maintenance present itself as a possible career choice. However, maintenance has fed my family and me for 50-plus years. If the educational establishment thinks it is less than intellectually stimulating, let one of them go through the control circuits of a ground air conditioner. Also our profession is not some dumping ground for dropouts. We need bright, intelligent people who can master the complexities. We do have some selling points. The profession will not go away, downsize or have some technological development make us all obsolete. As I mentioned, it will not be shipped overseas. So the first task is to get the kids whipped up a little at the prospects of getting into GSE maintenance. You will find you can enjoy career days talking to our future hopes. Just be prepared for lots of questions.

The second is to support the technical community colleges who often have courses of study with some relevance to our needs. Usually these schools have industry support committees who meet with them three or four times a year. I have been on and off these committees in three states. One tries to educate the school into teaching as modern a technology as they can. No sense in training on Model A Ford engines anymore. You had better know a bit about pollution controls, converters and electronics to make it now. The schools are usually begging to get industry members on these committees. It boosts their prestige with their educational hierarchy if they can demonstrate industry support — their chances at getting a bigger cut of the budget pie.

The Role You Can Play

You can make a difference. I was an industry member of the New York City board of vocational education at a time of one of their many budget crises. The school chancellor attended one of our meetings and blithely announced how he was going to literally screw the aviation high school by cutting its budget down to where it would have lost its FAA certification. It was fortunate that we had (as members) a flying traffic reporter for a major radio station and the aviation editor from the New York Times. Big guns indeed. After the chancellor finished, the flying traffic reporter said he thought that would make some excellent material for him to comment on as he helicoptered over New York. The New York Times editor ruminated that the story of the board of education perpetuating fraud on the students of the school by denying them the ability to get their FAA licenses would probably make page one although probably not at the top. It is rare that so high a public official can get so red, and he revealed a tendency to stutter under stress. I can say that TWA, Eastern (me) and Pan American all chipped in on our disgust. The chancellor folded and the cuts were restored.

Your presence at the school, at functions and maybe a little interaction with the teachers and students may get you a first crack at graduates. Here in our town, Volvo has a large truck presence. They even suck up aircraft maintenance graduates from the local technical community college, as they have an insatiable demand for technically educated mechanics to work on their large over-the-road trucks. So it isn’t all gravy and you may have to buck some competition, but at least you will be heard when the graduates look for jobs. Our future mechanics are out there. They just have to be informed that the opportunities exist and that we are looking for them.