If things don’t change, there may not be enough of them to keep planes flying
BY JERRY SIEBENMARK
A shortage of skilled workers isn’t just a concern for aircraft suppliers such as Spirit AeroSystems.
It’s also a growing concern for companies that repair and maintain airplanes, including in Wichita.
“There is a tight labor market for aviation skill sets,” said Lynn Nichols, whose fixed-base operation, Yingling Aviation, also does aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul.
The need for airframe and powerplant mechanics and avionics technicians is driven by increasing demand, he said.
The 2018 Global Fleet & MRO Market Assessment forecasts the global aviation maintenance market will grow from $77.4 billion this year to $114 billion in 2028.
But that same report commissioned by the Aeronautical Repair Station Association forecasts a shortage of aircraft mechanics sooner — less than four years from now. By the end of 2028, the report said, there will be a 10 percent shortage of mechanics.
“We can now point to 2022 as the year of reckoning,” said Brett Levanto, ARSA’s vice president of communications. “Seeing clear analysis showing that a shortfall of aviation maintenance talent in the very near future needs to move us to action now.”
A tight supply of aircraft maintenance workers is already a problem at Textron Aviation, the maker of Cessna and Beechcraft airplanes, which depends on a steady supply of airframe and powerplant mechanics and avionics technicians for its chain of aircraft service centers.
“I would say we are currently feeling the impact today,” said Maggie Topping, Textron Aviation HR business leader.
Textron Aviation has to hire about 150 airframe and powerplant mechanics a year across its U.S. service center network just to keep up with attrition, Topping said.
The shortage of aircraft mechanics is caused by a combination of low unemployment, retirement and competition with airlines and other industry. Topping and Nichols said an airframe and powerplant mechanic’s skills are such that they are frequently recruited by companies in diverse industries such as wind energy and locomotive manufacturing.
“It’s very competitive right now,” Topping said.
Nationally, ARSA is supporting Senate Bill 2506, which would offer up to $500,000 in grants to increase the pool of trained aircraft maintenance workers. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, is a co-sponsor.
The Aviation Maintenance Workforce Bill would establish a pilot program run by the Federal Aviation Administration to award grants to companies, organizations, technical schools and colleges, and state and local government entities to support the education and recruitment of aircraft maintenance workers. The grant money could be used for technical training programs, scholarships and apprenticeships to increase the pipeline of qualified workers.
Locally, WSU Tech, formerly Wichita Area Technical College, is trying to recruit more students for its powerplant mechanic and avionics programs, said president Sheree Utash.
“There’s no doubt that this whole aviation industry has critical workforce issues looming like a tsunami,” Utash said.
Right now, its airframe and powerplant program is at its highest enrollment ever, “but we still have the capacity to add more classes, more students,” she said.
She said the school is targeting both adults and high school students in its recruitment efforts.
Among adults, Utash said, the focus is on those who are under-employed as well as those looking to re-train in another industry.
We’re “trying to help them understand this is a wonderful career to get started in,” Utash said, adding that WSU Tech has a job placement rate of 90 percent for graduates.
She said the technical college also is “really working hard to create pathways” for area students who are in their junior and senior years of high school. Those students can begin taking classes in the A&P and avionics tech programs while still in high school “and get a jump start,” Utash said.
The A&P program at WSU Tech is 18 months long, while the avionics tech program is 12 months long, Utash said. The A&P program teaches students how to work on an airplane’s engine as well as its body, wings and control surfaces. An avionics technician specializes in an aircraft’s electronics, such as radios and navigation systems.
According to the 2017 Kansas Wage Survey from the Kansas Department of Labor, aircraft mechanics in the state have a starting annual salary of $46,874. An experienced aircraft mechanic in Kansas can make as much as $73,549 a year, according to the wage survey. An entry level avionics technician in Kansas starts at $44,500 a year, while an experienced one makes a little more than $65,000 a year, the survey said.
‘Filling the pipeline’
Textron is participating in the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas’ Youth Employment Project and will have 25 interns this summer, Topping said. The company also has “quite a few job shadowing opportunities for youth,” she said.
Textron’s biggest concern is having a pipeline of future aircraft maintenance workers, Topping said.
The company is supporting efforts at the state level to appropriate more funding for aviation training programs geared to high school students as well as efforts to get more youths interested in aviation manufacturing and maintenance careers.
“Fewer youths are choosing to come into manufacturing and technical careers. … Our focus has all been about filling the pipeline,” Topping said.
Nichols, Yingling’s owner and chief executive, said the tight market for mechanics and avionics technicians has led its company to recruit new ones from as far away as Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
“Our target area, geographically, has to expand because of the shortage,” he said.
The difficulty finding new workers hasn’t disrupted Yingling’s business, Nichols said, and it is not yet doing things such as offering sign-on bonuses.
“I guess in some respect it’s a nice problem to have, because it validates the economy is growing,” he said. “That’s the good news.
“The bad news is the talent shortage.”
Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark