Thin Gray Line: The industry needs new mechanics

Feb. 1, 2005
The industry needs new mechanics.

This year I was honored to speak at 30 FAA IA meetings to 4,000+ mechanics, in cities that are as geographically diverse as Fairbanks, Alaska, is from Lakeland, Florida. Some of the IAs at these meetings told me they only came to the meeting just to be picked on by me. While that kind of false flattery warms my soul, the real truth is that the vast majority of mechanics would listen to a mime for eight hours to renew their IA rather than take the FAA's IA test all over again.

Even in cities 5,000 miles apart, one universal fact becomes readily apparent. The gray heads in the audience outnumbered the dark heads 10 to 1. Are we dying as a profession I wondered as I watched the thin gray line file in after a break. "Where are the younger mechanics to carry on once we retire?"

Wise men who have studied organizational design, have figured that the ideal mix of experience and talent in any professional field is one-third master journeymen, one-third able journeymen, and one-third apprentices. This mix is vital for a single organization or an entire career field to sustain itself. While, I am never mistaken for a wise man, based on what my eyes tell me, I estimate that the mix of active mechanics working in general aviation is 80 percent senior journeymen, 15 percent able journeymen, and 5 percent apprentice mechanics. At 61, I count myself in the 80 percent group.

America, we have a problem. In less than five to seven years we will lose 80 percent of our most experienced mechanics in all sectors of aviation maintenance because 40 years have passed and it is getting close to the time for the Viet Nam era mechanics to retire. Who is going to replace them? If we can no longer maintain what we build, how long can our industry, our profession, and our nation last?

What happened?

What has happened to our maintenance profession in the last 15 years, you ask? Who is to blame? The simple answer is the marketplace!!!!

Our aviation maintenance industry's volatility began shortly after the Air Line Deregulation Act of 1978. But, way back then, our industry average age for an IA was 39 and A&P schools were turning out 7,000 plus mechanics a year. From 1979 through 1987, we still had recessions and job scares but the industry kind of coasted along, feeding off of the false memory of security of now defunct Civil Aeronautic Board economic protectionism. That momentum came to a halt in the late '80s when the first of several large air carriers went under; names like Pan American, Eastern, Midway, Peoples Express, and New York Air, ceased to be. From 1988 to 1991 airlines crashed due to a whole host of new market factors and the inability to adapt to changing times. As each one died, they collectively dumped a surplus of 15,000 experienced mechanics into an already crowded workplace. These well-trained mechanics easily filled the gap in aviation maintenance positions caused by the Korea-era trained mechanics who were retiring.

In the years 1992 through 1994, large numbers of G.I. mechanics added to the surplus work force because of the downsizing of the military after the Gulf War. Not surprising, the supply exceeded demand, and with the cut back in commercial flying during and after the Gulf War, mechanic jobs were hard to find. Not only jobs were scarce but wages for mechanics stayed about the same for most of GA while the rest of the industry's pay scale climbed.

This cold economic fact was not lost on the high school seniors in 1994 that were looking to enter one of the many technical fields available. Aviation still carried with it the promised magic of flight, and the added allure of working on multimillion dollar, high-tech aircraft. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that money makes the world go around, and these high school kids knew at the time there were no jobs in aviation maintenance so they chose other professions in CFI (callous free industries).

As bad as these early '90s marketplace roller coaster rides the mechanics were on, even more severe was the pain the Part 147 schools had to endure. Unlike the 200 hours, required to train a commercial pilot, it takes between 1,900 to 2,200 hours to train a new mechanic. So even in good times, a Part 147 A&P school is always 18 months behind the demands of the marketplace. So, after the end of Gulf War, and a slowing economy, the majority of Part 147 schools started to cut back on classes and instructors, due to low student enrollment.

These years, 1992 through 1996, marked the first serious decline in the number of new A&P student starts and in my opinion it was the beginning of the longest decline in the numbers of younger mechanics entering into our career field.

Around the last quarter of 1996, the aviation industry took off, when our economy bounced back. New start-up carriers were being added, oil was $24 a barrel, and the surplus of mechanics of the early '90s worked itself down into a deficit. Now, the Part 147 schools were hard pressed to fill the demand for more mechanics. With the industry moving again neither the Part 147 schools or the military could fill the demand for mechanics overnight, so outsourcing heavy maintenance to other countries became an option for the air carriers. This new source of cheap, well-trained labor abroad further lowered the demand for new homegrown mechanics.

9-11 and the fear of flying

Next bump in the road came on 9-11 when the flying public, watching the destruction of the NY twin towers, no longer thought of commercial and general aviation as a transportation system, but now those same aircraft were seen as weapons of mass destruction. Almost immediately the industry experienced the loss of public confidence and the fear of flying went to a whole new level. Shortly thereafter our recovery was stalled when our industry fortunes were inversely proportional to the soaring price of oil. So for the last three years, the airline industry has been experiencing the economic volatility worthy of a Mexican TV melodrama.

So what are we going to do about it?

First, what is the present status of the maintenance industry? My research says that corporate aviation is by far the healthiest with respect to decent jobs and wages. Next in line are the large and middle size repair stations, followed by the regional airlines, then the large airlines, and last is general aviation. While many of the large established airlines pay more than the corporations or repair stations, I placed them next to last because of the current job insecurity and latest reductions in pay. But even the healthiest organization will be fighting hard to fill mechanic positions within the next five to seven years.

So what do we fix first? Answer: Fix the problem that is common to all. That problem is the lack of new mechanics entering our career field. But we must address the causes behind the problem such as the decline of number of Part 147 schools. We have a total of approximately 172 Part 147 schools. I say approximately because some are operating at minimum capacity. Most of the ones that are in trouble are part of state-operated community colleges. The bean counters at the schools run the math and correctly figure that costs of operating with low student enrollments exceed the benefits and based on the math, they either start to close down the school or reconfigure it to teach other technical subjects. They fail to see the long-term effects of their actions on our industry. Each time we lose a school, we bleed a little.

The warm and fuzzy folks might say: "Oh, so we lose a school or two, so what, we can count on ex-military mechanics to take up the slack after they come back from the Iraqi war." Well you can forget about it. The military is not in a position to save our bacon again. They have their own mechanic retention problems. I pulled up a news clip off the Internet that said on Jan. 30 of last year the Blue Angels, the Navy's flight demonstration team, announced there was a shortage of qualified applications for mechanics for its 2005 season. That one sentence says it all. Plus every school we lose, we lose $3 million in aviation education infrastructure because it takes approximately $3 million to start up a new Part 147 school.

So now what? I am reminded of what former Speaker of the House and fellow Irishman, Tip O'Neill said: "All politics is local." What he meant was, that before an issue becomes a national problem it must first be identified as a local problem and receive local support to solve that problem. Once identified, then that problem is moved up through the system to the city, state, or federal levels of government where the problem can be addressed.

For example, we have the results of a hundred different studies performed by industry and the federal government that identified the shortages of aviation mechanics as far back as the DOT 1993 Blue Ribbon Study titled: Pilot and Maintenance Technicians for the Twenty-First Century." That report and every report since stated the same conclusion, that the effects of a shortage of mechanics on a multibillion dollar aviation industry are incalculable.

But the word "incalculable" is just too hard a concept for the local citizen to understand, and they did not "see" a problem, so the warnings went unheeded. However, if in a year or two, down at the local airport, there are daily incidents of regional jets that cannot make a flight because there is no mechanic to fix a grounding item, then "incalculable" becomes a real word and a local problem to the 50 people who missed their connecting flights. Or worst yet, the word "incalculable" might be a smoking hole in the ground because the flight was made despite that the needed maintenance was not performed.

But, the timeline to solve this problem is short. So we need to get both local and national industry attention on this coming shortage of maintenance personnel and not wait for a smoking hole. At the local level, I urge the alumni of A&P schools to support their schools with monetary gifts and other offers of support. For those schools that are in serious trouble, the alumni can write or visit their local, city, and state representatives and educate them on the importance of aviation mechanics and the schools that train them.

But don't stop at just the bureaucrats, each alumni mechanic needs to educate local repair stations, airlines, and FBOs that they will be in for even tougher times ahead when there are no toolboxes on the hangar floor. We must convince them all that Part 147 schools are economic growth poles that serve as a lightning rod that attracts new industry and growth into an area.

For you old gray heads that are semi-retired, here's an idea. Why not offer your services to high school shop teachers pro bono as a technical assistant and show the younger kids what aircraft mechanics can do. Maybe you can even convince the wood shop instructor to build an airplane as a class project instead of making a set of matching salt and pepper shakers.

We as individual mechanics have to get one on one with the young. We have to show them the magic behind this profession of ours. Let's show them how a trained mechanic can take ordinary materials like steel, wood, and aluminum and make and maintain a machine that can fly!

At the national level, the industry trade and membership organizations that represent maintenance, pilots, FBO, corporate, repair stations, and regional and national air carriers better start to address this coming mechanic shortage as soon as possible. May I recommend at least a preliminary meeting to explore possible solutions to the mechanic shortage to take place at the Aviation Industry Week Convention, in Las Vegas, Nevada, that runs from March 8 to 10. At least three issues should be addressed at this first meeting. First how do we attract young people to our profession? Second, how do we keep Part 147 schools in operation? Third, how do we retain good mechanics? I will also be in Las Vegas in March giving FAA seminars at the convention. I am ready to help. Will I see you there? Better hurry, the thin, gray line is getting smaller.

About the Author

Bill O'Brien