Resourcing the future of aviation maintenance
Much is written and spoken of crippling pilot shortages; but have we forgotten the role of the humble aircraft engineer? Through the eyes of young people looking to pursue a career in aviation, the role of the pilot is still one that exudes glamour in a way that the aircraft engineer struggles to emulate. The traditional stereotype associated with aircraft engineering is a world inhabited by men who have all the technical skills but none of the social skills to match. This misperception does the profession a great injustice and is difficult to shake off; but shake it off we must because the industry needs aircraft engineers now more than ever before, and this situation will only become more critical unless considerable efforts are made to promote the profession to the next generation.
Breaking down stereotypes
An engineer is no less indispensable to the successful dispatch of an aircraft than a pilot. With this in mind, consider the predominance of so-called industry commentators who have commandeered the ‘global pilot shortage’ as their tour de force yet have failed to grasp the fact that, without engineers, the global pilot shortage is in fact a myth: if there are no engineers to dispatch aircraft, those aircraft are not going anywhere and those pilots will not be required. So, we must work harder to promote engineering as a profession. We need to dispel the misconceptions around the job itself and we also need to promote the job as a career choice to a wider demographic. By way of an example, it is refreshing to see leading industry businesses such as Boeing with their ‘Women Make Us Better’ campaign, addressing the need for more women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). STEM is one area where the female demographic is lacking in numbers. In terms of gender representation, aircraft engineering is an industry where female role models are few and far between and where there is a history (at least) of gender bias.
Recognizing aircraft engineering as a skilled profession
In terms of the physical job itself, most people would be surprised to learn that, typically, it takes longer to qualify as a type-rated EASA B1 or B2 engineer than it does to become a type-rated pilot. There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that modern commercial transport aircraft use automation and augmented flight controls to make them safer and easier to fly; and that the extensive use of synthetic training devices has made it easier to learn to fly. Furthermore, a retail model has been built around the training of pilots and has grown into a significant industry in its own right. Consequently, today, a cockpit career has never been more accessible and is no longer the exclusive domain of a select few. In stark contrast, the path into aircraft engineering has not been swept clear of obstacles. Not only does becoming an engineer mirror the requirements of becoming a pilot in terms of medical fitness (vision and hearing), good hand-eye coordination, a solid foundation in math and physics, and an ability to concentrate for prolonged periods; engineers also need basic workshop skills, hand skills and the ability to work under pressure in physically adverse environments. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, with the stereotypes associated with engineering and the potential pay differences, attracting new entrants is challenging.
The vital role of government-supported apprenticeships in plugging the gap
Aircraft engineering is a profession that lends itself extremely well to the apprenticeship model. Apprenticeship programs are normally built around the requirements of a business by matching the skills of employees to the current and future skills needs of the business. They are also effective at driving diversity in the workforce and at improving employee retention rates. These are benefits that the retail flight crew training industry cannot always offer as crew training is often limited to those with an ability to pay or through accumulation of significant debt, without guarantees of employment. (In contrast apprentices are usually employed from day one whilst they undergo their training.)
Another cornerstone of an effective apprentice scheme is access to public funding. By way of an example, in May 2017, the UK government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy (effectively a tax on employers with a wage bill in excess of GBP £3m) as a way of forcing businesses to address skills shortages. Funds collected through the levy are stored in a ‘digital fund’ and are available for a period of 24 months to pay approved training providers. Within the UK airline industry, uptake has been significant with the likes of EasyJet, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic (to name just a few) accessing funding to train maintenance apprentices on 2-year Maintenance Certifying Mechanic (EASA Cat A) schemes. As well as accessing the funding, the training programmes are successful in that trainees come back into the business with the relevant skills to be productive. (This new workforce has also been successful at driving diversity; for example, at the apprentice graduation event held in our Aviation Technical Training business in September 2019, 75% of the special achievement award winners were female.) This is a model that could perhaps be emulated in other countries.
Best practice in aviation training
On a final point, the aviation industry needs vocational training that provides learners with the qualifications the industry needs. In many countries, we see a blurring of the lines between academic qualifications and vocational qualifications. Experience in the UK has shown us that, so far as aviation engineering is concerned, the vocational route has proven the most effective; academic qualifications often do not align with the industry-specific qualifications that employers need. Academia has its place but alone cannot solve the problems that lie ahead. Beyond providing theoretically sound and technically competent individuals, good vocational training providers also offer extra-curriculum activities that help build life skills, such as team building days and reflective learning exercises. All of this ensures that they can deliver a supply of well-rounded young people into the industry.
Resource Group’s Aviation Technical Training business delivers Part-66 basic training and online technical and flight crew training. Our apprentice centre has trained more than 700 new aircraft maintainers to date, using a training philosophy based upon the regulatory requirements of EASA and our belief in consolidating classroom learning with practical sessions in workshops and on aircraft in a simulated Part-145 environment. This approach has won the trust of some of the most prestigious airline brands in the industry.