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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”