A Fresh Perspective: A&P student roundtable

Aug. 1, 2002

A&P student roundtable

By Joe Escobar

In May I visited Blackhawk Technical College, a Part 147 school, and talked with five students who were getting ready to graduate. The following article is from the discussion we had on their thoughts and concerns as they get ready to enter the aviation industry.

Meet and greet
Twenty-nine-year-old Jerry worked on tractors and lawn mowers after high school. After 10 years Jerry decided it was time for a career change so he enrolled in A&P school.
Dave joined the Army right out of high school and spent six years working on helicopters. Now that he's out of the Army, 27-year-old Dave is getting his A&P certificate.
Jennifer grew up around race cars and mechanics and always loved the mechanical field. She wanted to do something different and at the age of 31 she's on her way to a career in aircraft maintenance.
Tim's interest in aviation goes back to his childhood fascination with the Apollo missions. When Tim's family farm started to head south he decided to follow his dream and get involved in aviation.
The youngest of the group, 21-year-old Lindsay came to Blackhawk fresh out of high school. She had taken auto mechanic classes in high school. Her teacher talked to her about the possibility of becoming an aircraft mechanic. Lindsay hopes to further her career and earn her bachelor's degree in technical maintenance after she gets a job.

Moral support
What was the initial reaction of your family when you told them you wanted to go to A&P school?
JERRY: My mom was pretty surprised, she didn't like the idea. She's thinking of the implications that come with working on an aircraft and being responsible for 200 people's lives.
DAVE: My wife was supportive. She was with me through the Army and as I said I was in aviation the whole time there.
JENNIFER: I'm the oldest of three daughters and I'm the only one with a greasy thumb. My dad was really happy that I decided to do something in the mechanical field.
TIM: My wife was very supportive. It has been tough on the kids since going to school and studying takes a lot away from family time.
LINDSAY: My family was really supportive. What was really surprising, my grandma was the most supportive. My family just couldn't believe I was going into something like that, but then on the other hand they knew I always enjoyed turning wrenches.

How did you finance your education?
DAVE: The GI Bill and veteran's benefits and I work full time.
So you work full time in addition to going to school?
DAVE: And drive an hour and 15 minutes each way.
JENNIFER: Well I started working full time and that clashed with school a lot. Trying to work full time and go to school full time wasn't working out. I did however, have a trust fund from my grandfather for college. So that helped me out a great deal and right now I'm not working. I've been concentrating on school and it's really paid off.
TIM: I basically downsized my farming operation, or it was downsized for me, I should say. And so, when this came along I looked at it as an investment and I originally expected to basically foot all of it out of pocket, but since then I have gotten some grants, federal, state aid, that kind of thing, which has helped tremendously. But, basically, most of it, I just look at it as being an investment in my life, so as far as the education and being an A&P, everything I have heard you can use it just about anywhere. It's just a good base knowledge into any job that you want to move into, any career, anything.

Hitting the books
What was the hardest part out of the curriculum?
JERRY: Anything to do with electricity.
DAVE: I never worked on regular reciprocating engines before, so that was probably the hardest. All my experience was with turbines, so I never messed with the recips much. Never plan to again once I'm out of here.
JENNIFER: Actually I'm the opposite. When I started out I couldn't comprehend turbine engines for the life of me. I understood the theory. I don't foresee myself working on them in the future. I really got into general aviation and even though now I understand turbines better and I actually kind of like them, I still think general aviation's going to be what I want to do.
TIM: I would have to agree with Jerry - the hardest thing for me was the electricity courses and avionics. It was also challenging learning the FARs. Seems like you've got to be a lawyer to interpret them.
LINDSAY: For me, it was the sheet metal work and the painting. Every time I'd paint, I'd get runs no matter what I did. Inspection class was also challenging. Learning how to determine if it's a crack or just normal wear.
So what about your favorite part?
JERRY: All the powerplant stuff. Anything that makes 'em go.
JENNIFER: I enjoyed the projects. Just being able to work on an engine and the feeling of accomplishment of finishing it and knowing you made it run.
DAVE: Yeah, I hear what you're saying. Everything that makes them run. I also really enjoyed the first semester, the physics. The instructors were pretty good. That was really educational.
TIM: The avionics and electronics part, it's hard, it's difficult, but at the same time, for me it's challenging, it's something I'd kind of like to pursue more, even though it is really difficult and I guess that's why I enjoy it because it is just a measure of challenge.

Apprehension and anticipation
Do you have any concerns about going out into the industry?
DAVE: No actually, I signed up for the military and went on to school and my first assignment was in Fort Hood, Texas, in a maintenance flight platoon. Here I was 19 years old, a private, riding around for 50, 60 hours a month on training missions on helicopters and loved it. That's why I want to stay in that same field.
JENNIFER: I mean considering what's going on after Sept. 11 and what's going on with the whole economy I guess that my biggest concern is how long will I have to sit and wait for somebody to start hiring. How long am I going to have to wait for everyone to stop laying off? I mean yeah, sure there's concern probably, with the outlook at the job situation, you know. Will it get back to normal? Will things get better in the aviation industry or won't they?
LINDSAY: My fear is, being a female in the field and being so small, a lot of the maintenance guys are a lot bigger. Even in the automotive field I tried to get jobs and they'd say, well you're too small you won't be able to handle the job and I can prove to them that I can handle it.
JENNIFER: Everybody asks me all the time about being a female and being in this industry and I don't even look at myself like that I guess probably because I've grown up in an atmosphere with all guys, just maintenance, with racing, I've been around it, I've never been intimidated by all you guys or nothing. I mean these guys here are really nice.
LINDSAY: I don't get intimidated by the guys. You have to prove yourself and I've proved myself to a lot of guys.
JENNIFER: I just think it depends on the person. Like I said I've never had anything negative in the least bit.
LINDSAY: I've had lots of negative stuff.
I think one thing that is true is that everybody that first starts out is judged. So it really does depend on your attitude. I think whether you're male or female, if you have a positive attitude and you're willing to apply yourself, you should succeed. Most importantly, listen to those that have been there longer. I've seen guys who have just ruined their chances at having a decent job because they went in there with an attitude like hey, I've got an A&P, I know everything I need to know.
Moving on, have the events of last year changed your outlook on this career at all?
TIM: It's just got me wondering how much of your freedom has dissolved away as far as that instance occurred. As an employee of a major company are you going to be required to besides having the background check be required to be finger printed, that type of thing. How deep are they going to delve into your private life, personal life, you know that type of thing.

The job hunt
Do any of you have jobs or interviews set up?
JERRY: I've got a job at an airport for the summer. I asked some of the guys what opportunities they had over there and they said not a lot's happening. I guess, if you really want to work you're just going to have to go to general aviation. General aviation looks like it has the most opportunities right this second.
LINDSAY: I've been out of the program for a year. I got my A&P in November and I've gotten one call back from about 10 different applications that I sent out. I did a telephone interview and then they never called me back after that.
TIM: As far as jobs, I've been real active at looking, sending out resumes, that type of thing and going to shows like the AS3 show and I went to the Heli expo in Orlando, Florida.
Since the Sept. 11 thing I don't know. The market's kind of stagnated somewhat. And there is a problem, not having experience, trying to get enough experience to move into that particular field or any particular field really I suppose.
Did any of you get any work experience while you were still in school?
JENNIFER: Well I worked in the field for two summers. I worked down at a regional airport in Illinois and worked on airplanes, did all sorts of maintenance things. Helped the mechanics out and that type of thing. And then I did the same thing over at Monroe in '99. That really helped with knowledge and school and helped me have something on my resume. But yeah we'll see what the job market's like, right now it's not looking too pretty.
What kind of resources are you using to find job openings?
JENNIFER: I've been glued to the Internet for I don't know how long. I've been applying basically everywhere and anywhere that has an airplane. I don't wait to see if there's a help wanted sign hanging outside.
So if you couldn't find a job in aviation in this state would you maybe use your A&P ticket to help get in somewhere else?
JENNIFER: Then I might have to go somewhere else, yeah. Because I feel that I've put enough into this: time, effort, money, and everything else. I don't want to just say forget it. I definitely plan on pursuing this as far as I have to go.

The almighty dollar
What are you expecting to make when you get started?
JERRY: Right now, I'm starting out at $8 an hour without a ticket. I was making $12 to $13 an hour working on tractors, so eventually, yeah I want more, I spent a couple of years going to school and a lot of money. If I can make upwards of $20 an hour, I'll be happy.
DAVE: I was at $17.69 working with a contract company and obviously that's being on the road. So I'd say anything between $15 and $20 I'd be happy with.
LINDSAY: I'm not sure what to expect, but I'd like to work somewhere that's going to give me good benefits in the long run, like health benefits and at least some kind of insurance because today without insurance you're out of luck. The benefits are the big deal to me. It's not really how much they pay, because if they make up in benefits, then that's what I'd consider.

Looking into the future
What are your plans for the future?
LINDSAY: For me, I don't know, I'd love to stay in aviation, but right now the way it's looking, there's no jobs. If I have to, I'll get a part-time job in aviation and do something else. I don't know what, they say amusement parks even look for A&Ps because of hydraulics and stuff like that, I don't know. I'd like to move to Florida, but there's not very many jobs down there either. There's mostly helicopters and I don't really like helicopters. But if I have to get a job on helicopters, I'd work on helicopters too. I'd like to stay in aviation. If I have to stay around here, it's probably going to be general aviation because there's not much else around. I don't know. I guess I just keep putting my applications out and if I get calls back then I get calls back.
DAVE: I just want to get in with a good company and if that's the case then I'll stay there 40 years if need be until I retire. I don't want to be jumping around from contract to contract, from this company to that. I just think I'll try to get in somewhere. That's all I'm asking for.