Meeting the Mechanic Crunch

Concerns over a shortage of mechanics are rumbling through the helicopter industry, keeping hiring mangers up at night with the fear of a dried-up talent pipeline. The shortage is affecting operators and manufacturers differently across the industry, making a single fix virtually impossible. And, looking closely, simply increasing the number of schools or encouraging more people to consider aviation maintenance as a career won’t solve the problem. The issue is more complicated.

Mechanic works on Sikorsky CH-54
There aren’t many bigger aircraft for a helicopter mechanic to work on than a Sikorsky CH-54. Here, a mechanic takes a look at one belonging to Helicopter Transport Services, based in Aurora, Oregon. Heath Moffatt Photo
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While employers across a number of helicopter sectors are reporting difficulty in finding and retaining skilled and qualified helicopter airframe and power plant (A&P) mechanics, others cautiously note having mechanic applicants to spare. The difference is due to a mixture of company culture, partnerships with organizations and schools, and straight up creativity and dedication to keeping a supply pipeline open.

At Robinson Helicopter Company in Torrance, California, company president Kurt Robinson said he is finding both a decrease in skilled A&Ps and the number of schools to train them.

“Frank [Robinson] founded the company in Southern California because of the large pool of skilled aerospace workers, but that was in the late ’70s and early ’80s when McDonnell Douglas and other big manufacturers were here,” Robinson said. “The landscape has changed and we’ve certainly seen a reduction in the number of schools teaching aviation mechanics. Northrop University, for instance, was a very large source of our A&Ps.”

Mechanics working on main rotor hub
Companies and manufacturers across the industry are concerned about a potential shortage of mechanics, making the ability to attract and retain qualified personnel a prime concern. Mike Reyno Photo

Northrop University closed in the ’90s and Long Beach City College, which provided a steady flow of graduates as well as offering night courses for Robinson employees, recently discontinued its A&P program. Today, Robinson works with Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona for new talent.

“It is a constant battle to find people in our field and to retain them,” Robinson said. “We work with the schools because a 10-year A&P doesn’t typically want to come to work at a factory. They’re headed toward airlines at that point in their careers.”

Robinson seeks to maintain an average of 50 A&P mechanics by working directly with schools and putting new employees through a reengineered internal training program. The helicopter manufacturer hires newly-minted A&P mechanics and puts them to work in sub-assembly. From there they move up and advance in the company. “We identify strong employees early and move them up in the company sooner in an effort to maintain retention,” Robinson said. “Overall, we see the most loss between two and five years with us as they move on in their careers. If they’re with us six years, they tend to stay.”

Air Evac Lifeteam, which operates more than 130 Bell 206L helicopters across 15 Midwest and southern states, is in a similar boat. “Over the years it has been challenging out there to find good people, but recently it seems to be much harder with not a lot of qualified people,” said DJ Bates, assistant director of maintenance at Air Evac. “There are a lot of young people out there, but they don’t have the experience we need — two years of helicopter experience to be a base mechanic, and three years in type to work at our maintenance facility.”

Bates said retention is fairly strong at Air Evac; benefits and pay are comparable with the rest of the industry, and many bases are fairly rural, attracting candidates who like the lifestyle and appreciate the lower cost of living. However, Air Evac is growing, and with growth comes the need for more employees.

Apprenticeship programs to encourage mechanics
Fred Polak of the International Association of Helicopter Maintenance Professionals would like to see the FAA establish official internship and apprenticeship programs to encourage new mechanics to enter the field. Mike Reyno Photo

“We started working with an aviation employment agency for contract labor,” Bates said. “They seem to have a large pool of folks looking for jobs, and we work with them to bring on folks for a 90-day program as contract for hire. This gives us the opportunity to see what these mechanics can do, and often we do offer permanent employment at the end of the contract.”

Education is key

Fred Polak, president and CEO of the recently formed International Association of Helicopter Maintenance Professionals (IAHMP), sees education, both in the form of training mechanics and in educating the industry to change, as key in maintaining the A&P pipeline.

“First off, the regulatory agencies are out of step,” Polak said. “Take the U.S. and Canada for example. The U.S. has the airframe and power plant — A&P — [qualification], while Canada has the aircraft maintenance engineer, or AME. Both require significant training and skill, yet someone who holds one of these certificates can’t work in the other country without testing and achieving the separate certificate. We would like to see Transport Canada and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] work together to make these reciprocal as a means to keep the pipeline open.”

Polak said he’d also like to see the FAA work toward official internship and apprenticeship programs to help new mechanics enter the field and assist companies in hiring new mechanics. “We, as an industry, need to help ourselves on several fronts,” he said. “Allowing interns and apprentices to work on aircraft under supervision, with regulatory support, would help alleviate the pressure.”

On the educational institution front, colleges and associations are working to increase the visibility of aviation maintenance careers. Helicopter Association International (HAI), through the Aviation Technical Education Council, is working to better integrate rotorcraft into technical school programs, said HAI president Matt Zuccaro. Helicopter Foundation International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of vertical flight and educating future generations of helicopter industry professionals, is partnering with manufacturers and operators to help supply unused components and equipment to maintenance schools.

At the same time, associations like HAI and IAHMP are working to bring information to middle and high schools about career options in aviation maintenance.

Despite support from the industry, pressures of a different sort are providing challenges for these schools. At South Seattle College (SSC) in Seattle, Washington, program administrator Ellen Gordon struggles to make the A&P program attractive to graduating high schoolers. “There are a lot of people from our college and others going into middle and high schools to instill interest in aviation maintenance early on, yet the obstacle we’re seeing for these students is the very rigorous and expensive training,” she said. “Kids just out of high school fail the first few tests because honestly, high school isn’t aimed at college-level achievement, especially for a rigorous FAA-regulated program. We also see students aren’t interested in an eight-quarter program with the costs of an A&P program’s supplies and tests.”

Columbia Mechanics in Wyoming
The competition for qualified maintenance staff is higher than ever — and not just from within the aviation industry. Dan Sweet Photo

Because of the rigorous requirements of FAR part 147 — the FAA regulations overseeing A&P training — there is often no room to rearrange the curriculum to assist students in their success, Gordon said. Until the FAA can look at this issue and offer schools options to rewrite their training programs, it doesn’t look like that demographic will change, she said.

“As a result, despite attempts, we don’t see a lot of young people entering the program,” Gordon said. “Our students on a whole are typically adults retraining for new jobs.”

However, one source of maintenance students that is proving to be valuable in several ways is the military — and several organizations are working directly with the armed forces to prepare veterans and those getting ready to leave the service for immediate careers in aviation maintenance.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington state operates a large number of helicopters, from Kiowas and Apaches, to Black Hawks and Chinooks. Mechanics working on these aircraft during their service have the hands-on training and experience employers seek — but don’t exit the military with an A&P.

South Seattle recently obtained a grant through the U.S. Department of Labor and partnered with retraining program Camo2Commerce to develop an eight-week course designed to prepare JBLM mechanics and veterans for jobs in the civilian sector.

“We developed our program to assist those in service, offering lectures two days a week on base, a career specialist, resources and interview practice, and then on Fridays and Saturdays, the students come to our SSC campus in Seattle to work in our labs specifically on areas where they don’t have experience,” Gordon said.

The first cohort of 13 students graduated in December 2015, with most finding work right away, Gordon said. The second cohort graduated in June, and at the time of writing, many were interviewing for positions in the helicopter industry.

Mechanic working on aircraft
The potential cost of lost personnel, in terms of the expense of searching for and hiring a replacement, retraining, and lost productivity, is a real incentive for employers to ensure their staff remain engaged in their company. Dan Megna Photo

“It makes sense to work with people coming out of the military,” Gordon said. “They have the passion, dedication and make really good employees. Many joined to be helicopter mechanics and want to continue that career when they leave.”

Scott Sloat, operations and human resources manager at Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, couldn’t agree more. He hired five of SSC’s first class and is considering more. Columbia’s Chinook aircraft, being so similar and in some ways identical to what JBLM veterans know, made the SSC class graduates very attractive employees.

“Veterans understand the missions we fly and understand maintaining our aircraft,” Sloat said. “And they understand working in the field. In most of our operations, the mechanics live and work in the field, which is very similar to their life in the military. It ends up being a very good match for both the company and the veteran.”

Sloat said Columbia hasn’t had a lot of difficulty finding mechanics due to the strong military pipleline. However, due to Columbia’s willingness to promote and move employees to maintain their interest and passion, there are often openings around the company, from specific shops in the company headquarters to field work.

“We work to not only be an employer of choice, but a long-term employer of choice,” Sloat said. “We do this through relocation assistance, higher than industry-average benefits, and working with our employees on achieving their career goals, whether they want to travel, move into management, or stay close to home. We’ve heard from veterans who reach out to us after they leave the service that they talked with Columbia employees on missions where Columbia supported the military. They heard great things and wanted to join the team.”

Competition

Just as in any supply-and-demand situation, the competition for skilled and passionate mechanics is fierce. The practice of operators recruiting employees away from each other is as old as the industry, but now it’s coming from all directions. As supply dwindles, the fixed-wing industry is also feeling the pressure, and is looking to attract mechanics from lower paying helicopter positions.

But the helicopter industry has far more than itself and airplane operators to worry about.

“There are other industries out there looking for the same qualifications as the helicopter industry, but they pay more,” IAHMP’s Polak said. “The theme parks, for instance, have learned FAA-certificated graduates are highly desirable because the training involved [to become FAA-certified] requires a tremendous amount of training and skill.”

He’s also seen newly minted A&Ps find lucrative work in the oil industry, pneumatics, NASCAR, electronics, wind turbine repair and even the automobile industry.

“Demographics plays a lot into attracting and retaining a good mechanic, as does company culture,” he said. “A $100,000-a-year job with benefits is great in Pittsburgh, but not so hot in New York City. Helicopter maintenance is a passion, and some would prefer to be in that field. The helicopter operator has to be creative in how they attract and retain those folks.”

In the end, it could be a dedication to creativity that makes or breaks a retained workforce.

Tim McAlbin, director of maintenance at Hillsboro Aviation in Portland, joined the company earlier this year, moving over from Columbia. His team at Hillsboro may be small compared to the shop he ran at the larger operator, but it’s highly skilled.

“Almost all of the guys here have more than 10 years of experience,” McAlbin said. “I’d be in a world of hurt if I lost one of them.”

Upon joining Hillsboro, McAlbin put together a cost of attrition report for the company’s executives, highlighting how the loss of one mechanic could cost the company $24,000 a month in retraining, productivity and the expense of searching for and hiring a new person. He recommended a program to recruit the company’s current employees as a way to gauge job satisfaction and career goals, and then tie them into company goals in an effort to retain employees.

“A part of my job here is to build up our service center, a company goal, and I’m looking into adding a component overhaul shop,” he said. “The team here is interested in that. It adds diversity for the employees, helps them build new skills, and breaks up the monotony. The company grows and we increase retention and job satisfaction. Sometimes it isn’t about the money. I’ve been very lucky that the leadership here is receptive of these recommendations.”

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12 thoughts on “Meeting the Mechanic Crunch

  1. Hi there, I moved in December 2012 to Southern California and I was looking for a job,
    my back ground, from 1980 to 1993 helicopter mechanic and crew chief in Mannheim/Germany for the US-Army, from 1996 to 2012, line maintenance Lufthansa Technik Germany/Frankfurt, so all together 30 years experience in aerospace
    I send 2013 a application to Robinson helicopters and never ever heard anything back,
    it seams to me they don’t need that bad people !

  2. This article gives a very realistic view on what is going on with A&P mechanics. I graduated from school with my A&P a year ago and now work in aluminum manufacturing for the aerospace industry simpling based of the fact that I was offered double the pay than any other aviation job.

  3. There is so many veterans out there looking for helicopter mech jobs, but the pay is not there and they get no credit from there military exp even if they have an A&P.

  4. Excellent article that misses the true reason why I with an A&P license since 1970 does not work as a mechanic. Pep Boys pays better with good benefits for starting mechanics.

  5. Hard competition in the trades industry against red seal tickets that get paid substantially more for less time and have way less responsibilities and stress! Helicopter aviation is falling hard with the economic times, but it can also be good for companies to step back, look where costs are going, plan for future spikes in downturns/ upturns, set company goals, diversify in other fields than oil…..educate/ train personel ….to keep key employees that are passionate about their careers and the future of aviation…. all of which will in turn help potientially raise the wage of the AME and dynamically regrow the helicopter industry. A&P and AME license work together as one, to see skilled trades men and women working in the aviation field!!! Involve or target more women in the fields of aircraft maintenance/ structures/avionics technicians, as a ame women in the industry for more than 10 years, id like to see more opportunities for young women and equality in the aviation field, times are changing

  6. By adding EASA it’ll be great…
    We would like to see Transport Canada and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] work together to make these reciprocal as a means to keep the pipeline open –

  7. I agree. this is a difficult one.
    Some thoughts from an old goat:

    1. Moving mechanics up in the company is essential- but this has to be performance based. No work, no gain.

    2. Offering shares in the company might be a good idea.

    3. Incentives like a week’s paid holiday to a gorgeous spot in a great destination offered to the mechanic and his family might work. The actual spot (hotel/ lodge/ camping site) in the destination owned by the company for obvious reasons.

    4. Tertiary education for the mechanic’s children paid for by the company. Come to an agreement with the tertiary institution- discount offered to staff for holiday bookings at#3 above.

    5. Keeping well qualified mechanics depends on conditions in the work place. A happy workforce is not difficult to keep if the conditions comprise respect and empathy.

    Kind regards,
    Brenda.

  8. Ask the mechanics if they would recommend aviation maintenance as a career choice to a young person, their son or daughter or niece or nephew? I’m willing to bet, if they’re honest, a high percentage would say no. There are many careers that have better working conditions, better pay, better advancement with similar rewards to provide for a good living other that aviation maintenance.
    To keep good mechanics, issues include better pay & benefits, shared responsibility & less stress. Part 91 shop rates are very low. Part 135 all about the contracts. Part 145, don’t need A&Ps & are able rely on uncertified mechanics and leads to take on massive responsibility. Repair stations may have training in place for unlicensed mechanics, but training is usually down on the priority list when a ship needs to get out the door. Military mechanics will most likely take jobs in the lucrative contracting market overseas first. They’re willing to mitigate the risk because of the pay. Many experienced civilian mechanics end up doing the same thing because of the irrational pay-to-responsibility ratio for aviation maintenance. When you sign off an annual, you’re signing off all the previous ones too. Mechanics have to fight for decent pay, decent hours, and respect from upper management. Family owned, small shops are toughest. Having to call the boss, who may not even be an A&P but is the owner, when a decision must be made regarding parts or procedure is illogical. Micromanagement and undermining authority. Companies need to continue to invest in their employees. Many mechanics love aviation and would stay if that were true. Cheers to my mechanic brethren & sistren!

  9. A&P in the States and AME in Canada are considered unskilled labour, while a plumber, carpenter, welder and electrician are considered skilled labour. Aircraft technicians are skilled labour as well as have more legal responsibility than any of the other skilled labour classes.

    Its the airlines that are keeping aircraft technicians classified as unskilled so that their costs are lower. As soon as the aircraft technician becomes skilled labour their costs will double or triple.

  10. You wrote in your article that in the United States, an A&P qualification is required as it requires significant training and skill. I had heard in the past that helicopter services were highly trained, but I didn’t know what specific training they had undergone. If the service professionals had been through the A&P, you know that they have adequate skills to keep you safe in the air.

  11. I’ve had my A&P for 6 years and I have decided to try to leave the industry. All of my friends have stable careers, own a home in decent neighborhoods and are financially secure. I have never had that luxury and I don’t see that changing any time soon if I continue on this career path. It makes me happy just thinking/writing about it.

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