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In the annual announcements by Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer and other aircraft manufacturers about the half-million or so additional pilots who will be needed to fill cockpits over the next 20 years, often overlooked is the need for an even greater number of maintenance technicians: about 600,000 by 2031, according to Boeing’s most recent forecast. So if there is already, or will soon be, a shortage of qualified pilots, is there not also a shortfall in maintenance personnel? And not just in commercial aviation but business aviation and civil helicopter operations as well?

“The Boeing and Airbus projections are pretty accurate. Every one of our sales people is routinely asked, “Do you know anybody who would like to do the job?” said Mike Lee, director of maintenance training business development for FlightSafety International, the market leader in business aviation training for pilots and technicians. “Qualified people are just not available.”

About 86 percent of members of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) said they are having at least some difficulty finding qualified personnel, and 26 percent said that recruiting is “very difficult,” according to Brett Levanto, operations director for the Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group. The poll was conducted this spring at its annual repair symposium. “This year’s results echo the same key points from our 2012 survey,” Levanto noted.

If they can find the candidates, four out of five ARSA operators expect to add staff or at least hold steady over the next two years.

West Star Aviation, for example, has 36 openings for Gulfstream, Dassault Falcon, and avionics technicians at its new maintenance facility in East Alton, Illinois. Timco has several openings in the Southeast U.S. for A&P and avionics technicians, and company representatives have been visiting high schools, vocational schools and community colleges to create awareness of the profession. AAR Aircraft Services recently hosted a career day for sophomores and juniors from Miami, Florida, Central High School, including the opportunity to interview for summer internships.

Websites Show Demand

Websites such as aviationjobsearch.com and bestaviation.net show hundreds of open maintenance positions, including roles in Europe supporting Bombardier, Cessna and Embraer aircraft, as well as AgustaWestland and Airbus helicopter models. Online aviation employment board operator JSfirm.com reports the skills most in demand in the corporate aviation sector are maintenance and avionics technicians, which account for 30 percent of expected hiring, whereas pilots represent only 7.5 percent.

“You hear in the news about the pilot shortage, but there is actually a greater shortage of technicians,” said Chuck Horning, chair of the Aviation Maintenance Science program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Overall, there’s a very strong demand. We have a placement rate at nearly 100 percent.”

The ARSA has put up its own recruiting website (www.avmro.com) to promote the profession, highlighting that there are more than 4,700 aircraft repair facilities worldwide employing roughly 473,000 people. “Aviation technicians work in an exciting, prestigious industry and…earn an average of $55,230 per year, putting aviation maintenance salaries ahead of most other technical industry jobs,” the site notes.

Enrollment in A&P schools has dropped as the aviation industry has lost much of its former glamour. “Aircraft are not seen as high-tech by Generation X and Y,” said FlightSafety’s Lee. The 40-year veteran said some of the lack of appeal is that few young people have hands-on experience with automobiles or tractors, as his generation did as teenagers.

Baby Boomers Retiring

The current maintenance workforce is aging and, similar to the pilot pool, many post-WWII baby boomers are reaching retirement age: in the U.S. the average age for maintenance techs is about 53, in Australia 58, and in Europe a relatively youthful 45. “In Europe, the shortage mostly concerns the maintenance mechanics, not maintenance engineers,” said Dassault spokesperson Vadim Feldzer.

The shortage extends to maintenance instructors as well. FlightSafety requires average aviation experience of 10 years with at least five years on heavy jets. Lee said it typically takes six to seven months to find a qualified instructor.

The shortage is not only in numbers but also in quality. Some operators complain that the graduates of maintenance schools don’t reach the skill levels of their predecessors. One industry veteran estimated only 30 percent of new grads had the requisite skills. Many schools lack the funds to purchase new-generation aircraft that can be dedicated for maintenance training, so there’s a disconnect between the older aircraft and components students learn on and the modern models and avionics systems they’re expected to service on the job.

FlightSafety now uses iPads for training, which enables the company to incorporate level-D flight simulator software into the classroom in the form of touch-screen-operated virtual cockpits. All maintenance manuals are also on the tablet. “This generation learns differently,” explained Lee. “They want to explore, as they do on the Internet. It’s not in their nature to listen to linear PowerPoint presentations.”

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