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Aviation Maintenance During a Pandemic: The Inside Story

The EvoLLLution | Aviation Maintenance during a Pandemic: The Inside Story
Filling empty spots in specific technical programs, like aviation management, requires colleges and universities to diversify their student body (by marketing to underserved populations, create stackable credentials and build partnerships with industry and airports).

Lumina Foundation recently awarded a grant to Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW) to partner with AAR, an independent provider of aviation services to commercial and government customers worldwide, to reduce labor shortages of aviation maintenance technicians. At the time of the grant award, the airline industry was burgeoning, nearly half of the maintenance workforce in the U.S. was close to retirement, and the industry was facing a shortage of trained workers to keep airplanes well-maintained. What happens now with the industry hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic? Lumina took this question to CSW and AAR. Their answers, edited from a longer conversation, may surprise you.

Holly Zanville (HZ): What was the aviation maintenance industry facing before the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ryan Goertzen (RG): The industry has been projecting severe labor shortages over the next 20 years due to expansion in the airline industry combined with workforce retirements and attrition. At the same time, training schools have been suffering and will continue to suffer from instructor shortages, challenges in finding resources to expand programs, and enrollment numbers in aviation maintenance programs of about half the numbers authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration. The pipeline has been sorely lacking diversity. So, we’ve been planning for years to figure out solutions. The project with Lumina has emerged as our most promising solution.

HZ: How severe are the diversity issues?

RG: Among current certificated aviation maintenance techs, only 2.2% are women. And while FAA data doesn’t provide race/ethnicity breakouts, BLS data combining both certificated and non-certificated aircraft mechanics and service technicians indicate 82% of those workers are white and only 10% are black. The project we’re working on will help thousands of workers gain good-paying jobs with clear career pathway options, increase diversity in the labor force, make the pipeline large enough to keep up with current retirements, ensure companies who employ aviation mechanics can meet growing demand, and reposition education programs to ensure they meet employer and learner needs.

HZ: What do we know about the awareness of jobs in aviation maintenance?

RG:  The Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) found in its 2019 Pipeline Report that over half of respondents felt that potential students lacked awareness of the training programs available to them to pursue a career as an aviation technician. One-third of schools responding felt students had negative perceptions about aviation maintenance careers. Yet, these are jobs requiring highly skilled technicians, and they can provide career pathways with annual wages from $60,000 to over $100,000.

HZ: How is CSW helping a private company like AAR do this work?

Larry Good (LG): CSW is partnering with AAR to lead a robust partnership that includes colleges and technical schools, community-based organizations, and military transition programs to develop and implement a comprehensive program to strengthen pathways to good jobs as aviation mechanics for diverse job seekers. The program has six components:

  • Stackable credentials: building career pathways by modularizing programs and providing industry-valued intermediate certificates and certifications to learners that can be “stacked” as part of earning the higher-level aviation maintenance technician certification.
  • Increasing enrollments: working with partner schools on targeted recruitment campaigns to attract/enroll substantially more students.
  • Attracting diverse candidates: raising the visibility of aviation maintenance technician jobs and career pathways, focusing particularly on attracting women, Black and Latino people and those leaving the military. As an example, we will work to develop a critical mass of female aviation mechanics by building an all-female cohort at one of AAR’s education/training sites.
  • Increasing the number of community colleges and technical education providers offering aviation maintenance technician programs certified by the FAA.
  • Providing wraparound support services needed by students to complete programs and workers after they’re hired to increase their likelihood of success.
  • Expanding hiring for those leaving the military, specifically by expanding AAR’s Skillbridge training programs at current and additional military bases.

HZ: How is the work going to proceed in the pandemic environment?

RG: Our partners are determining when students can get back into in-person classrooms, though they can begin some of their education with online curricula. Partnerships between industry and education play a crucial role in the current environment. We can create short, stackable credentialing programs for students to gain the fundamentals in school and apply what they have learned on the job. We’re working with a mix of current FAA-certified maintenance training schools and new ones to be added to increase enrollment. Our partners include Rock Valley College in Rockford, IL; Lake Superior College in Duluth, MN; Wichita State University Tech, KS; Western Michigan University, MI; and Vincennes University in Indianapolis, IN. Engaging community colleges and technical training providers in important locations is key to increasing diversity. Several program specialties will be developed to add new competency-based programs within a network of partners. One such program will feature an FAA general curriculum focused on postsecondary students transitioning into aviation careers. Another will offer a pathway program to FAA certification–with the help of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance–and will focus on several credentials of value (e.g., sheet metal, FAA general technician, avionics, OSHA 10).

HZ: What is the military component?

RG: We’re focusing on transitioning military personnel to civilian aviation maintenance jobs by expanding Skillbridge programs. AAR already has a partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and new programs will be established at several military bases (Fort Carson in Colorado, AFB Hurlburt Field and NAS Jacksonville, and Fort Bragg in North Carolina). We will be expanding that work.

HZ: What are the plans to open careers to women?

RG: We’re developing an all-female cohort at AAR’s facility in Miami, FL. Female students from our various pathway efforts are being recruited to participate, and a cohort of ten or more women will be placed on the same shift and mentored by a female management team. We’re also partnering with Becky Lutte, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, to lead our research project. She’s very well known in collegiate aviation programs and has done extensive research on expanding female engagement in aviation careers but nothing quite like this, which I am very excited about.

HZ: There’s the view out there that aviation maintenance jobs are going away with the airline industry hit so hard by the pandemic. Is this true?

RG: Yes, the industry has been hit hard, but these critical jobs are not going away. The industry faces an urgent need to ensure we can fill these highly skilled technical jobs as airplane usage rebounds. As we speak, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are running at about 50-60% of their pre-pandemic rate, and Delta and United are a little less. The airlines are impacted especially by the amount of service they provide internationally vs. domestically, and passenger vs. cargo service. Of course, there are many factors impacting the industry. For instance, it’s not clear how many businesses will return to the U.S. from nations in which they are currently operating. That would impact business travel especially. And we don’t know if the new normal will include a reduction of other business travel, such as fewer in-person meetings and more “virtual meetings,” as our platforms improve to accommodate business through technology. But we’re anticipating a gradual but steady recovery in the airline industry.

HZ: Despite the decline in passenger service, hasn’t there been continuing demand for cargo service with all the online ordering folks are doing for products we need?

RG: Definitely. FedEx, UPS, and Amazon have increased their services, along with other airlines.

HZ:  Do the planes that are not flying still need to be maintained?

RG: Yes. A large fleet of planes not needed now for active service are parked at airports throughout the nation. Planes in disuse enter a “storage maintenance program” because you can’t just park airplanes and not attend to them. There’s a rigorous maintenance process for upkeeping those planes, depending on how long the airline predicts the aircraft will be in storage.

HZ: Are there enough workers to do this work?

RG: We’re using the current workforce, and some folks unfortunately have been laid off in the pandemic. We were forced to lay off the entire workforce at our Duluth facility, and we’re operating at half capacity through reductions-in-force at sites in Oklahoma City, Rockford, Miami, and Indianapolis. But the reality is many current workers are close to retirement, and as a result, many workers will not return post-COVID-19. We are optimistic that airlines will continue to recover over the next two to three years–we think we have hit bottom already and will be back to normal service levels as soon as the American public regains confidence in air travel. So, we have a brief window in which to train new workers and diversify the workforce – which was the goal before the pandemic.

HZ: Is this a time for education and training programs to slow down since the job market is not as promising as it was pre-pandemic? 

RG: Absolutely not. Academic institutions should be working alongside industry to develop programs that will lead to employment. And they should be doubling down on marketing efforts to fill seats in programs. I have found in my career that when the economy is not good, it is time to re-educate. Students entering community college aviation technology programs in the fall will complete them and enter the workforce at just the right time as the aviation industry returns to pre COVID-19 standards. For that to happen, colleges must support programs for which demand is high. I continue to hear about institutions cutting budgets to programs that have tremendous graduation and employment rates and high earnings. This makes no sense. Schools must also look to stackable credentialing as a way to lower costs while growing their enrollments. Shorter programs may not be as attractive right now, but the planning and development of these programs now makes sense for launch next year.

HZ: How are students going to afford going to school, for example, full time for two years? Can federal financial aid or industry support help train the new workforce needed?

RG: Having spent eight years in higher education, I find a lack of funding to be a bad excuse not to go to school. Cities, states, and the federal government have provided so many ways to go to school for free or to access funding through loans to pay for education. The Title IV funding program allows people with zero income or poor credit scores to attend college. Programs like Kalamazoo Promise or Indiana’s Next Level Jobs allow residents to go to school for free or at limited costs. Schools need to build programs that maximize these benefits for students. We also need to ensure that we tie all federal dollars to educational outcomes, so that all programs meet graduation and employment standards as well lead to gainful employment. These programs ensure that institutions focus on solid academic programs, minimize student attrition and help students find employment through robust career services departments.

HZ: Is the Federal Aviation Administration interested in this work?

RG: Definitely. The FAA is responsible for the certification of Airframe and Powerplant technicians.  Certification can be achieved in three ways: military experience, on-the-job training, or attending an FAA-certified school. AAR, through the EAGLE Career Pathway Program, addresses each of these pathways to certification, and the new Lumina grant will provide additional resources to accelerate the foundational work already achieved. The federal challenge that exists is the regulatory framework that has not changed significantly in over 50 years. Current regulations are 100% focused on time in seat and do not account for advancements in educational pedagogy. The work in this grant could prove monumental in providing a nearly seamless transition from military to civilian technician careers.

HZ: You mentioned the survey about awareness of aviation maintenance jobs.  How can people learn about job opportunities?

RG: AAR’s EAGLE Career Pathway Program was our attempt to provide a marketing tool to our industry as well as our pathway partners. AAR is also working alongside the industry group Choose Aerospace to help grow this awareness among students, parents, high school counselors, administrators, and the collective industry. Aviation has done a poor job of marketing itself. As the economy rebounds, it is critical to broadcast the various careers in technical aviation.

HZ: My take-away is the airline industry is slowly recovering; education and training are still critically needed; and colleges are gearing up to admit more students into programs to fill jobs that will be opening up in the next few years as many workers retire. But we’re still facing the problem of making people aware of these good-paying jobs, especially people of color and women.

RG: Industry must be deliberate in making these changes. It’s not easy; nothing good ever is. John Holmes, our CEO, remains steadfast in our pursuit of “Work as One, Be Inclusive.” This is one of AAR’s core values that we put to the test in our partnership with Olive Harvey College in South Chicago, launched in December 2018. If you want more people of color choosing aviation, start a program in a neighborhood whose residents are predominantly people of color. By April 2019, we were teaching our first class of sheet metal technicians in which 95% of students were people of color. The female cohort hiring demonstration project supported by this Lumina grant is critical to unleashing a wave of women who find great careers in technical aviation. This out-of-the-box thinking and deliberate action are what it will take to move the needle in the right direction. We as an industry cannot settle for 2.2% women and less than 10% people of color.

HZ: Can federal programs accelerate the solutions, or is it on the industry sector to solve these problems?

RG: Both are critical. In accelerated programs not tied to degrees, funding is limited to non-Title IV funding sources. Though these programs are often less expensive ($2,000-$5,000), they might as well cost a million dollars to some, given that the programs typically are not covered by federal financial aid. The industry also needs to be innovative. For example, AAR provides the instructor at Olive Harvey College for the sheet metal program. That instructor works for AAR, and we have biweekly meetings with Olive Harvey leadership to ensure that we’re working together to fill classes and help students get jobs.

HZ: This is such a fascinating example of an industry facing tremendous disruption−and so many other industries are no doubt going though similar rethinking of their plans. Is CSW capturing the industry and workforce stories of recovery?

LG: We will all be learning about the “new normal” as it evolves, and without a doubt, the pandemic will accelerate the pace of change faced in many industries. Just looking at employment statistics won’t be enough; we will collectively need to share stories of how industries, companies, and people figure out how to succeed in the wake of the greatest disruptive economic event of our lifetimes. 

HZ: Thank you for the work you’re doing to diversify the airplane maintenance workforce in such trying times. Last words?

RG: The industry will weather this storm. Aviation has experienced challenges in its past, from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to the financial fallout of 2008. Though these events were clearly not as severe, our industry went into this crisis in a completely different financial condition. Human nature will bring people back to the safest mode of transportation in the world. Airlines are working around the clock to help bring back consumer confidence in the measures taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Each of us plays a role and must be selfless in our resolve. If you’re sick, don’t get on a plane.