MRO Training Faces Major Challenges

Aviation maintenance training in North America is grappling with some big questions. From the basic—how does the industry attract and retain more student mechanics?—to the more complex—how can the gap between initial training and employer needs be narrowed without an excessive time and cost burden? There are no easy answers. But the challenges are spawning conversation, debate and some creative solutions.

The training community’s challenges begin at the very top of the training funnel with fewer students entering technical schools to learn skilled maintenance and repair trades. “Many of the students who have the ability and aptitude to work on planes are choosing to go to college, work in computer-related fields or go into other repair and maintenance occupations with better working conditions,” reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook.

Judith Rice, program coordinator for the Aerospace Resource Center at the Florida State College of Jacksonville’s Cecil Center South Campus, gets e-mails two to three times a week from companies begging for A&Ps. “Employers are desperate,” she says. “Most of the larger companies are looking for 8-12 technicians at a time, and this is happening weekly.”

Still, numbers are only the beginning of the problem. Another issue is that FAA Part 147 schools are training to standards that were last updated in 1992. Not surprisingly, there are major gaps between what was regulated nearly two decades ago and today’s training needs. To close those gaps, the FAA in 2007 commissioned an Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) working group tasked with reviewing and recommending revisions to the operation of aviation maintenance technician schools. The group’s recommendations, submitted in December 2008, were accepted and moved into the NPRM process.

In 2009, the effort stalled as the U.S. changed administrations and several high-profile accidents diverted the FAA’s attention and resources, causing the 147 ARAC to be placed on “hold” status. It is still there. Today, the most hopeful estimate for an NPRM on Part 147 is this summer; more realistically, it could be 2012 before it appears. In the meantime, schools are bound to regulations dating back to before many of today’s A&P students were born.

“There are significant gaps in Part 147 as aircraft continue to advance and the requirements don’t keep pace with the technology,” says Charles Horning, department chair, aviation maintenance science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Somehow you have to work in the advanced technology so student knowledge is relevant and current, but that adds more hours to the time students are in the program.”

Minding the Gap

Admittedly, there always has been a gap between a technician’s skills fresh out of A&P school and the needs of most employers. Even with the changes proposed by the 147 ARAC, those in the business of training new AMEs and A&Ps acknowledge that initial licensing will always be just that—a beginning.

“We can adjust things, putting a little less time in recip and a little more time in jet, so we optimize the program for the best outcome,” says David Jones, corporate aviation education director for the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, with 10 locations in the U.S.. “But it’s always going to be a beginning certificate. We give them the foundation, and the first thing companies are going to do is give them more specialized training.”

Still, there’s a big push to narrow the gap in cost-effective ways.

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla., recently modified its sheet metal class to align more closely with the industry’s needs. Students will be working with thicker materials and larger rivets to prepare them to work on larger aircraft, says Ron Worthington, VP of aviation training. The school also added a greater concentration on special fasteners. And Spartan’s director of A&P training created a voluntary afterschool class focused on higher-end sheet metal repairs.

These and other curriculum changes sprang in part from a partnership with AAR Corp. in Oklahoma City. Under the partnership’s terms, AAR will hire 10% of Spartan graduates, enabling Spartan to guarantee placement for a number of students. In return, AAR gets new staff who can hit the ground running.

These kinds of win-win partnerships are growing as they address both cost and preparation for employers while helping schools attract students through higher placement rates. Here’s another example: About 18 months ago, Northrop Grumman partnered with West Los Angeles College (WLAC) to create an aerospace structures and composites certificate program. Northrop Grumman provides guidance and course materials to support the four-month class. In return, it gets first pick of the graduates and reduced training costs.

Program Coordinator Todd Matosic says attendees don’t need an A&P, but WLAC screens for mechanical aptitude. With upwards of 70 applications for each 20-seat class, WLAC can be selective. So far, WLAC has graduated four classes and plans to start a fifth in late September.

composites

The sheet metal and composite training needs being addressed by Spartan and WLAC are hot topics. As the Boeing 787 and other composite aircraft come on line, employers want technicians who can work on these structures. As a result, schools in North America say they keep hearing the same thing from advisory boards: We need more sheet metal workers, more technicians trained in advanced structures and more technicians who know their way around high-tech avionics.

ARC offers courses in sheet metal and composites, but even at capacity they can’t turn out enough workers to meet employers’ needs.

Recently, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM) boosted its 1,900-hr. course to 1,920 hr. to adapt to industry needs, primarily in the area of composite training, says La Vern Phillips, director of business development for AIM schools. About two years ago, AIM also added a 20-week, 420-hr. NCATT-accredited course on avionics and electronics. Originally, the course was offered at the end of A&P training as an optional add-on, but the pull to get a job kept some from enrolling in it. Now, it is offered concurrently with basic A&P training, and Phillips says more than 60% of students opt in.

Expanding on that concept, AIM plans to beta test a similar 480-hr. course on advanced structures at its Atlanta site later this year.

Since composite training isn’t regulated by the FAA or Transport Canada, it’s up to trainers, working in conjunction with industry, to determine what needs to be taught.

“It’s an evolving field, and the lack of standards is a problem,” says Michael Hoke, president of Abaris Training Resources, specialists in advanced composite training. “Standardization of materials and repair techniques is a long-term goal, but no one knows how to get there.”

In the meantime, organizations like Abaris stay in close contact with OEMs about the materials and repair techniques used on aircraft. One of the newest composite training subjects covers the repair of thick structures.

“Most composites now are thin skinned with maybe four to six layers on lightly loaded structures,” says Hoke. “The 787 will have 75-100-ply-thick, solid carbon fiber, so there’s a new set of repair techniques and a new set of skills we’ll have to teach.”

Soft Skills in Demand

It’s common sense that as technology evolves, technician skills naturally must evolve with it. This is increasingly true in non-technical subjects. For instance, AIM’s Phillips says his advisory board has been clamoring for technicians who can solve problems and troubleshoot—a request that prompted AIM to introduce critical thinking skills in its degree programs.

Ronald Elvidge, Aveos’ VP of maintenance solutions, says his organization also sees an increased demand for this kind of training. “There’s a strong desire today for technicians who can troubleshoot,” he says. That’s because technicians who are skilled in accurately zeroing in on a problem can bring significant savings to an airline or MRO. If mechanics are changing components worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to find a problem, it quickly adds up to millions of dollars in unserviceable equipment.

Honeywell recently came to the same conclusion. “We’ve evolved from teaching just theory to focusing on specific troubleshooting techniques,” says Chuck Chidester, director, aerospace training solutions at Honeywell. “Employees aren’t coming to these classes to learn everything there is to know; They’re coming to learn how to fix something.”

Embry-Riddle’s Horning says these skills are particularly important at smaller companies where technicians are more likely to interact with customers. But even large organizations are placing greater emphasis on leadership skills. “You can’t just take your best technician and turn him into a supervisor,” says Rayner Hutchinson, VP quality and safety at AAR. That’s why more companies are training to that skill set early in technicians’ careers.

This concept of a long-range career path is one that is much needed in the aviation maintenance business. Countless workplace studies have proven that workers who are continually challenged are more satisfied and remain with an employer longer. But too often, MROs and operators are so focused on turning aircraft that they neglect to focus on the professional development of their technicians.

Paul Sahatdjian, VP recruiting operations at PlaneTechs, says MROs need an industry-wide platform for continuing education. “Other industries have trended toward more centralized online learning to advance in their professions, but there’s no one, single place to go for aviation technicians,” he says. Without an easily accessible platform for career advancement and education, Sahatdjian thinks technicians are more susceptible to migration to other industries.

An online educational platform could be particularly effective as young, computer-savvy technicians increasingly enter the workforce. This interest should be leveraged to attract and retain workers. By engaging more workers in training and professional development, the industry will add more voices to the training conversation, which in turn will spawn more ideas and solutions—and ultimately, a better-trained, more professional workforce.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University

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