Aviation Industry Adjusts to Increasing Demand for Aircraft Maintenance Technicians
Demand for aircraft maintenance technicians is on the rise, and companies in the aviation industry are working to match capability with opportunity. The most pressing concerns surround hiring, training, retaining, and compensating the technicians and mechanics who can turn this moment’s aviation dreams into tangible realities. We talked with several industry experts to explore how the sector is navigating recent data projections, industry analyses, changes to education, and workforce management.
The industry’s recent growth in demand for aircraft maintenance technicians and engineers with unique skills has been staggering, and this is great news for those who are now beginning their careers in aviation. Executive Vice President of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), Ryan Waguespack, offered his insights into the employment outlook for aircraft maintenance roles. He described the general aviation sector’s growth over the past 18 to 22 months as unprecedented. For those seeking work within the sector, “the outlook is incredible—job opportunities galore,” Waguespack said in an interview with Avionics International. “Getting in on the ground floor and becoming a certified technician is a phenomenal career, and I think it’s going to continue to head in that direction. It’s a long-term career.”
At the same time, opportunities come with a cost. Aircraft inventories are at a historic low, and there remains an ongoing need for in-service maintenance. “Typically, an aircraft operating 135 or on a certificate would do 2–3 [flights] a day. Now we’re doing 8–10. Rotables are wearing out quicker,” Waguespack explained to Avionics. “Data collection is key, but in that interim, we’re really challenged with keeping up with part availability.” As the aviation industry advances with electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, autonomous flight, vertical take-off and landing, and other capabilities, ongoing changes to aircraft maintenance protocols necessitate workers who are ready to meet these needs.
Pictured is a technician performing maintenance on an Airbus NH90. Airbus forecasted a need for 710,000 maintenance technicians in the aviation industry over the next 20 years. Airbus
Waguespack, who previously served as Chair on the Workforce Development Committee at NATA, explained how the aircraft maintenance industry’s evolution over the past several years shifted the nature of technicians’ training and expertise. Right now, workers must possess the technological proclivities the industry increasingly requires. “You don’t typically diagnose an aircraft now without plugging it into a computer,” Waguespack said. Though aircraft maintenance technicians’ traditional competencies and fundamentals remain valuable assets, technicians must also be technologically savvy. Additionally, both robust communication skills and the ability to work well in team-based contexts particularly apply to large-scale aircraft maintenance projects.
Technicians’ technological know-how is neither a passing phase nor a specialization. The line between technology expertise and mechanical expertise continues to blur. To that end, Waguespack expects the demand for computer and technology skills to increase over the next 5 to 10 years. He explained that “the avionics suites on aircraft are all integrated within the flight deck to the actual function of the aircraft. We used to silo off A&P technicians and avionics technicians.” Since there is so much growth in crossover between these competencies, these two types of maintenance roles work in tandem. “Systems are integrating so much—whether it’s electric propulsion, or UAM—you’re not pulling throttles anymore; you’re pushing forward, and the systems are all working together,” Waguespack said. “The technology piece is going to be key.”
Recent projections seem to back Waguespack’s assessment. For the ten-year span between 2020-2030, The Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) compared projected changes in employment for aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians to the total projected changes pertaining to all occupations. Aircraft mechanics’ and service technicians’ employment is projected to grow by 12%, avionics technicians’ employment is projected to grow by 10%, and both roles are expected to outpace employment levels for all other occupations in the U.S. by 8%. Mike Adamson, President and CEO of the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA), observed that these data suggest “faster than average growth over the next decade. I certainly think there’s going to be plenty of opportunity.”
Still, remarkable innovation and a positive forecast for aircraft maintenance technicians does not mean that corporations are filling positions as quickly as they would like. Such growth in such a short time suggests persistent gaps between companies’ needs and employees’ skills. Adamson spoke to the difficulties that companies continue to experience in the areas of both hiring and retention. Most AEA members—AEA members include aircraft electronics OEMs, dealers and service providers among others—have been engaged in a constant search for qualified aircraft maintenance technicians, Adamson stated.
These concerns come while the global workforce reckons with the COVID-19 pandemic’s occupational fallout. The aviation industry has certainly suffered pandemic-related disruptions in hiring trends over the past two years, but these adverse impacts were especially dramatic within the commercial aviation sector. In an interview with Avionics, Adamson speculated that while “business aviation has been thriving through the pandemic; commercial aviation has not. That must have had an impact on their hiring needs.”
Those entering the industry are faced with exciting but daunting work. New hires are not only expected to engage highly complex tasks right after the end of their formal education, but they will also need ongoing training and professional development to ensure their continued success. “We did a poll and got a response from our members that say more than 80% are hiring either now or later in the year, which is overwhelming,” Adamson said. “The problem is finding those people, getting them trained, and not losing them to other industries.” The struggle to recruit, hire, and retain the right employees is also complicated by inflation of pay rates. Adamson observed that wages and shop rates have sharply risen compared to past years. He expects this trend to continue, as the aviation industry fights to remain competitive compared to other technical industries.
Boeing’s most recent Pilot and Technician Outlook breaks down the demand for technicians worldwide; the highest demand will come from Europe and Asia-Pacific, closely followed by North America and China. Boeing
As for what specific competencies prospective hires must hold right now, Adamson sees avionics installations and aircraft panel retrofits as those skillsets most likely to be in demand. However, while systems’ complexity increases, the most valuable skillsets will continue to change. “The skill set that is going to be required is an understanding of software loads and configuration, as well as the tried-and-true wiring practices that we’ve been teaching for a number of years,” he said. “It’s definitely more software-driven. The updates to these systems are coming via software.”
One useful metric for understanding aviation hiring needs is the yearly increase in air traffic. More take-offs means more maintenance. Marshall Tetterton, Associate Professor of Aviation Maintenance Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, observed that commercial and aerospace are the two areas of aviation enjoying the most robust job growth. “Projected growth for maintenance personnel is 5 to 10 percent, for technicians across all sectors in the industry. It can be cyclical over many years. We’re seeing faster growth in certain areas than other areas, but the average growth rate is 5 to 10 percent over the next 5 or 10 years,” he explained in an interview with Avionics. Since air traffic is increasing every year, the frequency of maintenance increases to keep aircrafts up and running.
Besides increasing air traffic, another occupational concern—particularly for the airline industry—is the number of workers expected to retire in the near future. Almost all of the airlines are looking to hire more technicians, Tetterton said. The scale of these impending retirements is dizzying: up to 80% of the existing workforce is set to retire in the next five or six years. Indeed, a report from the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) released last year noted that 27% of FAA-certified A&P mechanics are at least 64 years old.
With these data and forecasts in mind, companies have prepared for these impending retirements. The increased demand for qualified technicians can be, in part, attributed to companies’ anticipation of the retirement bubble, preemptively recruiting retiring workers’ replacements as much as possible. The ATEC found that new entrants to the aircraft maintenance field make up only 2% of the total workforce population per year. “The problem,” said Tetterton, “is that the schools that produce A&P technicians and avionics technicians across the country have not increased the rate at which they’re producing technicians, so there’s a gap. The projections are maybe 10,000 to 15,000 new technicians every year.” In comparison, the number of technicians entering the workforce each year is estimated to be no more than 6,000. If this level of growth continues as predicted, schools are only producing technicians at half the desired rate.
Recruiters continue to value new skills, and candidates with a background in nondestructive testing of aircraft hardware are desirable. Tetterton noted that more and more airplanes have composite structures. “Corporate aircraft are loaded with composites—flight controls, radomes,” he explained, “and most have tons of different composite structures all over them.” As equipment involves and becomes more laden with electronic components, job candidates with experience in nondestructive testing are in greater demand.
Since schools want their graduates to possess the most in-demand competencies in a dynamic job market, the effects of avionics and aviation innovation bear out within the higher education programs that prepare candidates for field experience. Expertise that is in high demand for aircraft maintenance roles includes both electronics and avionics, a consistent trend for quite some time. “There’s not much on an airplane nowadays that doesn’t have a wire coming out of it,” said Tetterton. “Every sector wants maintenance technicians to have as much training in electronics and avionics as they can get. That’s been the trend for decades, and it continues to be something that industry is constantly advising us on—they’d like to see more and more electronics and avionics training.”
To meet these and other changing demands within the sector’s job market, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University recently designed a degree program within their College of Aviation that incorporates a new concentration: Avionics Cybertechnology and Security. Aspiring technicians at the university complete the FAA’s Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) coursework and a selected area of concentration such as flight, safety science, and maintenance management. The newly created Avionics Cybertechnology and Security concentration includes coursework in cybersecurity, computer science, and programming.
Executive Vice President of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), Ryan Waguespack estimates that NATA member organization operated aircraft that were previously performing 2 to 3 flights per day on average, are now frequently doing 8 to 10, and this increased use means more frequent maintenance will be necessary. NATA
Embry-Riddle isn’t the only institution that is expanding its curriculum in response to the demands of the job market. Institutions like Pima Community College in Arizona are also preparing students for careers in aviation. The college received a $490,000 award from the FAA’s Aviation Workforce Development Grant program to facilitate training and initial certification in nondestructive testing.
The effects of these responsive educational initiatives are also reflected in commercial aviation. Despite the recent havoc wrought by COVID-19 within this sector, Boeing’s latest Pilot and Technician Outlook analyzed fleet growth, aircraft utilization, and attrition rates to estimate the number of new pilots and maintenance technicians needed worldwide over the next two decades. In order to maintain the global commercial aviation fleet until 2040, the report says, the industry will need 626,000 new maintenance technicians.
One essential component to ensuring the health of the aviation market is investment in early career development programs. Across the board, recruiting employees will be incredibly competitive. The Pilot and Technician Outlook states, “Training methodologies continue to progress toward a holistic approach that focuses on competencies rather than a prescriptive, task-based syllabus.”
Airbus also shared its predictions regarding demand for aircraft mechanics in its Global Market Forecast for 2021–2040. An increased need for commercial aviation services comes along with shifting demand for replacement of aircraft that are less fuel efficient with newer models. The forecast from Airbus reported that there will be a need for 710,000 highly skilled technicians in the next two decades, including not only maintenance services but also flight, ground operations, and sustainable services.
In a briefing on the 2021 Pipeline Report by the ATEC, Executive Director Crystal Maguire remarked that in spite of a decline in newly certified aircraft mechanics caused by the pandemic, “the uptick in enrollments and the expanding diversity of new graduates are not only encouraging signs, but clues to how we can help bridge the gap between the number of mechanics we will have and are projected to need in two decades.”