The evolutionary and revolutionary changes in today’s aircraft technology is transforming maintainers from wrench-turners into degree wielders.
There will always be a need for a good, experienced A&P mechanic on the shop floor flanked by a large tool box on wheels and – in today’s world – a cart with a laptop computer taking the place of stacks of aircraft maintenance manuals.
But now MROs, aviation operators and major OEMs are looking as much at a mechanic’s educational credentials as at his or her experience levels. With the new incursion of more complex, digital technology into aircraft maintenance, “mechanics are now managing systems as much as maintaining those systems,” said Kenneth Witcher, Dean at the College of Aeronautics, Embry- Riddle Worldwide. “That has increased the desire in the industry to want some type of formal education.”
Witcher underlined the fact that over the past 30 years the aircraft industry has changed from analogue to digital. “If you think about today’s high bypass engine, such as a Trent 9000, that engine is part of the system that is interactive with all the components within the aircraft. All the skill sets we had years ago that involved turning wrenches and reading dials has been taken over by electronics, by technology that is managing the systems and integrating those systems into a larger system.
“So now your average maintainer doesn’t just have to know how to go out and take off a fuel control and put a new control on. The likelihood is that the maintainer now has to go out and understand how this system within the engine fits into the larger aircraft system. You don’t just need somebody who can identify what tools are in his toolbox. You need someone who can see the entire system and understand how the systems integrates into, and manages, those systems.”
Also impacting this growing need for a college degree is the number of multi-million dollar – or multi-billion dollar – aerospace programs. Military contractors such as Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman are demanding mechanics with college degrees simply because of the price for their products.
“The government necessitates (these companies) to require so much higher education before they can recruit anyone,” said Embry-Riddle’s Mark Kanitz, Assistant Professor College of Aeronautics Program Chair for the Master of Aviation Maintenance (MAM) degree program. “They can’t have people walking around with just a high school diploma when they are demanding top dollar.”
This is becoming more apparent as aerospace corporations start to see maintainers more in the light of problem solvers rather than just basic mechanics.
R. Eric Jones, Department Chair, Aviation and Transportation Studies at Lewis University in Illinois, said they have found “that a lot of the new aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origins or Virgin Galactic are not really pursuing engineers to the same degree as they are pursuing pragmatic, critical thinking practitioners.”
He noted that traditionally engineers and aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) act independently of each other. An AMT would take a digital photo of some ramp damage to the aircraft’s structure, then send it to the engineer for evaluation. They would then conference call and collectively evaluate the extent of the safest and most effective repair. Then the AMT would perform the repair.
“So we’re now seeing more companies saying they want the best of both worlds, and are willing to pay for it.”
From fly-by-wire to fly-by optics
Founded in 1932 as an aviation school, Lewis University is now in the first year of its BS in Aviation & Aerospace Technology program. During a two-year study to develop the degree program, they looked at a situation where if it’s fly-by-wire now, it’s soon going to be fly-by-optics, and will technologically be down to a one-man cockpit and an increasing reliance on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technologies by 2035.
“So who’s going to fix those new technologies? It’s going to have to be someone who is a master of all these skills.”
Jones said that those requirements have been packaged into their new BS program. “There’s a computer science component in it, there’s upper level aviation physics and advanced aerodynamics, even rocket technology – single and multiple booster – all the way up to a capstone experience where the student is required to incorporate multiple disciplines to graduate with this degree.”
Embry-Riddle has been offering a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Maintenance Science at its Daytona Beach campus for over 10 years and will launch an online program next year. The Worldwide Campus has over 130 locations and teaching sites around the globe.
Other universities have also started undergraduate degree programs for aviation maintenance including Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA; Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA; and the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo.
However, these vary in some degree. Whereas Liberty University and the University of Central Missouri offer a BS in Aviation Maintenance Management, Pennsylvania College of Technology – part of the University of Pennsylvania – offers a BS in Aviation Maintenance Technology.
Jones noted that at Lewis University, “50 percent of our enrolment went into the aviation and aerospace technology degree and 50 percent went into the management degree.”
Bradley Blank, Chair of Aviation Maintenance and UAS at Liberty, said that they started out with a simple A&P certification course back in 2009. That was turned into an Associates Degree program a couple of years later, in which “a student can come in and take 12 months of A&P training, then take another year of general education courses and walk away with an Associate’s Degree. That doesn’t really give training in maintenance management. It just gives them the basic first two years of college courses.”
However, the university’s aeronautical department talked to aviation organizations, which all said the same thing – that the people coming out as mechanics have zero management abilities.
“We also kept hearing that new mechanics were weak in trouble-shooting and electronics. So we took that information and built our first Aviation Maintenance Management degree program, ” he said. They started offering the Bachelor’s degree in 2014. This is offered online, although a residential program will be offered starting this fall.
Witcher noted that Embry-Riddle’s online BS in Aviation Maintenance program has doubled in size over the past five years, going from 800 to 1,600 students. “This is doubling without any marketing effort on our part, suggesting a change in the value of formal education by the industry,” he said.
The growth is partially caused by a rapidly increasing global demand for aviation maintenance personnel. A recent Boeing forecast showed a worldwide market demand for 679,000 new maintenance technicians between 2016 and 2035; with Asia Pacific leading the list with a requirement for 268,000, followed by Europe needing 127,000 and North America a further 118,000 maintainers.
Growing into Globalization
Blank noted that the increase in globalization will require managers who have studied and understand the global market. “Globalization will become increasingly complex, particularly at the large MRO level.”
He also pointed out that one MRO executive told him that over the next five years, about 60 percent of the company’s maintenance work force will be retiring. He added that of the students entering the schools aviation maintenance programs, there is roughly a 50/50 split between those who just want the A&P certificate to work on the shop floor and those who want the higher education of a BS degree.
While an A&P certificate is still the primary goal for a large number of students, and the lack of a degree is not yet necessarily a determent for getting hired, the recognized desire in the industry for personnel with degree-based educations is driving the expansion of degree programs in aviation maintenance.
Candace Goodpaster, VP, Human Resources, MRO for AAR, a major international provider of MRO services, said that AAR does not envision a college degree as a requirement for a mechanic position. But while a degree is not required, “those individuals who express an interest in advanced career development with AAR are encouraged to pursue academic degrees and higher education, as it will benefit their growth and development.”
She noted that AAR has a very robust Education Assistance Program to support employees obtain degrees and/or specialized certifications to prepare for career growth opportunities. “AAR also encourages utilization of the internal Learning Management System, made available to all employees which further reinforces the development of communication and leadership skills.”
AAR continually identifies innovative ways to attract and retain the key talent required to sustain high performance levels to meet customer requirements, she said. “We have seen many technical schools either expanding their curriculum or partnering with local colleges to offer degree options to supplement their A&P certifications. This reinforces providing supplemental career path options.”
She also noted that in developing leaders within the company, “it is critical to acquire non-technical skills to further enhance success, such as supervising individuals, communicating effectively with customers and obtaining business acumen allowing for a more thorough understanding of the overall business operation.”
With the growth in universities offering BS degrees in aviation maintenance, these institutions have also started looking at post- graduate degrees, particularly overseas. In the U.K., universities offering Master programs in aviation maintenance include City University London and the University of Liverpool.
Lewis University offers a Master’s Degree in Aviation and Transportation Studies, with a fast track allowing a student to go right from the Bachelor’s degree to the Master’s program. While their graduate degree program is not maintenance specific, “it offers an aviation maintenance technician much better writing and communications skills – a much more sophisticated level of research skills,” Jones said. “We try to take everything (the students) have done at the undergraduate level and sharpen it to where it is going to really impact their careers over the long term.” This program is offered both on campus and online.
The newest and perhaps most intensive Master’s program in aviation maintenance is from Embry-Riddle. The first class of its new Master of Aviation Maintenance program started on August 8 this year. This is a 30-hour program, consisting of 10 courses and offered online as well as face-to-face supported by technical videoconferencing, Kanitz said.
“The growth in the number of students over the past five years is what got us thinking about what the industry really needs,” Witcher said. We went out and looked at the industry – large MROs that were hiring people. We looked at their position descriptions to see what the knowledge and skill sets are that they are expecting candidates to have, even to make it into their selection process.”
That information was then used to develop “program outcomes,” or what Embry-Riddle would expect a graduate of the program to be able to do. “We built those program outcomes, then asked ourselves how we could put together a curriculum that will guide, or develop, the student into being able to achieve those program outcomes,” he said. “We turned that into an academic program that is going to produce graduates who are going to have those skill sets to meet the position descriptions from the MROs around the globe.”
Like the BS in Aviation & Aerospace Technology degree at Lewis Univ., the Embry-Riddle Master’s program splits the line between technology and management.
Witcher said that while their MAM program does deal in management, “we are a bit more on the technical side. Management is not the key focus.” However, teaching subjects such as Maintenance Resource Management (MRM), like Crew Resource Management (CRM), is important. “What does a typical maintainer in a large MRO see at the top leadership level in these multi-diverse cultures they are working in? They are leading these very diverse teams in the MROs to get the stuff done.”
The 10-course program will delve into the “why” as much as the “what.” Whereas an undergraduate degree basically calls on a student to regurgitate the information taught, “at the graduate level we are talking critical thought rather than simply being able to say what something is,” Kanitz said. The students are taught to understand the philosophical and academic fundamentals and concepts. “Then whatever (the projects) the students end up working on, they can apply (that learning) to that specific application.”
As an example, the program offers two safety courses: the first deals with “the complex regulatory and legal settings surrounding occupational safety, health and environmental management – how they affect industry, legal responsibility and accountability, ethical considerations within and external to the organization, and the international environment and how it may affect projects.”
The second safety course is more like MRM, Kanitz said. “The way you manage can cause safety problems; so in that aspect, that is what we are looking for.” It’s designed to allow the student to understand the principles of risk management and tools and techniques used in a Safety Management System.
Other courses include areas such as integrated logistics, managerial accounting in decision-making, leadership in global maintenance organizations, global maintenance resource management and strategic management of global MRO operations. The first course, Aircraft Maintenance Management, deals with an analysis of how maintenance programs are managed in commercial and general aviation aircraft organizations, while the last two “basically wrap up the entire program and focus on it,” Kanitz said.
All of the first eight courses can be taken in any order. The last two – Project Management for Aviation Maintenance and Aviation Maintenance Graduate Capstone – must be taken at the end of the program.
Embry-Riddle’s description of the MAM degree program is that it is designed to provide the students “with the knowledge and skills to function as competent supervisors and managers of aviation maintenance programs in a dynamic and highly complex aviation global industry. Students develop a practical and analytical approach to problem solving that will meet the challenges of managing and leading aviation maintenance organizations across the globe. This program will provide knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for students to become effective professional leaders team members, managers, and undertake lifelong learning for continuing professional development.”
“While the 30-hour program does have a research component because it is a graduate level program, it is not that focused on research and research methodology. From what we’ve heard from the industry and industry advisory boards, we believe that this is what the industry needs and wants from this point. The MAM program is a strong tool that will give the students what they need to be successful in the maintenance industry,” Krantz said.
Each course runs nine weeks. A student could therefore complete the program and have a Masters within two years—or one year if they double up, Witcher concluded.