Shortage? What Shortage?

For more than 15 years, industry leaders in both commercial and business aviation have been worried about a shortage in aviation maintenance, service and support and MRO personnel.

A study conducted by the Office of Government Accountability (GAO) in 2014 stated that aviation maintenance professionals’ “employment and earnings have stayed about the same, suggesting that demand for this occupation has not outstripped supply.” It’s amazing how quickly things can change, isn’t it? In those couple of years, we have gone from a laissez faire attitude to genuine concern when it comes to the demand for the next generation of aircraft mechanics, avionics technicians and related aviation maintenance workers and professionals.

That 2014 GAO report went on to say “employers may take several actions in response to a perceived labor shortage—including increasing recruiting efforts and raising wages.” And truly, that is the bellwether I have always looked to as real evidence of a shortage of workers in our industry. If wages remain stagnant, then there is no shortage, right?

Back in 2014 the GAO said very few employers were raising wages. Even so the report said most employers stated, “maintaining a qualified workforce will be difficult, in part because of a perception that fewer people are interested in aviation careers.”

Speed forward to 2017. According to the Boeing Market Outlook the airline fleet will double by 2036 and commercial aviation will require $8.5 trillion in services during the next 20 years. These forecasts are always issued with cautions such as saying that this will be the case if nothing major changes with the economy, fuel prices, geopolitical uncertainty, terrorism or any other black swan event as they have dubbed random, unexpected events that negatively impact our economy.

Having said that, the Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook release earlier this year sings a slightly different tune. “As newer generation airplanes become more prevalent in worldwide fleets over the next 20 years, airplane reliability will improve, and maintenance check intervals will lengthen. Although this trend will moderate demand for maintenance personnel somewhat, the global need for technicians will remain strong,” the report says. “Global fleet growth, along with the increasing trend for operators to outsource maintenance, repair, and overhaul activities to third-party providers, will drive an increased need for qualified technicians.” The report adds that some of the need will be based on regional growth, such as the need for maintenance personnel being largest in the Asia Pacific region. Boeing predicts the need for 268,000 new technical personnel in that region.

But global aviation growth is not the only driver of what could be a problem for the aviation industry. Retirements, weaker interest in becoming an aircraft mechanic and those who exit the aviation industry for more stable work are all contributing to the issue.

“A shortage of aviation mechanics within the next decade threatens the projected expansion and modernization of the global airline fleet. We project that the gap between the supply of mechanics and demand for them will develop in the United States by 2022 and reach a peak of 9 percent by 2027,” an Oliver Wyman insight article says. That is a mere five years from now. “Ultimately, the shortfall may raise the cost of maintenance for airlines and increase turnaround times for scheduled maintenance,” the report goes on to say. “This could potentially force the airlines to retain more spare planes to avoid cancellations and late departures resulting from maintenance delays.”

The law of supply and demand does apply here and I will believe we have a true shortage when I start hearing from you that wages are in fact increasing for maintenance professionals. If you are seeing this happening, I want to hear from you ASAP.

Back in 2009, ICAO created the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals Taskforce. Among their objectives was to identify and support initiatives to reach out to the next generation and to harmonize training regulations. Harmonizing training and certification requirements across the board is still a lofty and difficult goal but may be worth looking at as the industry comes to grips with whether or not we are truly about to experience a workforce shortage.