Is there a shortage of mechanics or is there a shortage of money to pay mechanics?
"With many Vietnam War-era aircraft mechanics nearing retirement, there's a growing need for maintenance technicians in the U.S. aviation industry." — Jeffrey Leib, The Denver Post, March 12, 2000.
I first heard about the mechanic shortage 30 years ago, from the salesman-recruiter who used alarming statistics about the coming shortage of mechanics to encourage me to enroll in A&P school. The big, scary number was the amount of airline mechanics who would soon be retiring, making room for thousands of fresh mechanics. As it turned out, there were plenty of jobs when we graduated in 1977.
Since then, the specter of a shortage of mechanics keeps resurfacing on almost a regular basis. The inaugural issue of the magazine that I used to edit ( Aviation Maintenance, formerly Aviation Equipment Maintenance) was printed in 1982 and featured a big story about, you guessed it, the mechanic shortage. Fast-forward a few years, and there I was writing a story for another magazine about the mechanic shortage. In 1999, alarmed aviation educators, employers, and regulators launched a big effort, with widespread industry participation (including a generous contribution from AOPA) to combat the mechanic shortage. This effort resulted in the formation of an FAA- and industry-supported group called Make It Fly, which was designed to encourage high school kids and workers in technical fields to consider aircraft maintenance careers. Make It Fly is not active anymore, but the somehow-compelling concept of a shortage of aircraft mechanics refuses to go away. The FAA, in fact, is convening another industrywide meeting to figure out how to promote aviation maintenance careers.
"There is a huge shortage of mechanics in the airline industry. It has almost come to a crisis situation." — Debbie Heath, director of the A&P mechanics department at Fox Valley Tech, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, quoted in a story by Brian Sharkey, The Business Journal (Milwaukee), October 13, 2000.
So is there a shortage of mechanics? The majority of respondents to a recent AOPA Pilot online survey of GA maintenance shops answered yes to that question. If they are correct, what should be done about the shortage? More important, how does a mechanic shortage affect the cost of operating your aircraft and the quality of your aircraft's maintenance?
The fundamental problem with any discussion of a mechanic shortage is that there is not much good information available. Here is what we don't know:
"The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be about 184,000 aircraft mechanics and service technicians employed in the United States in 2010, an increase of 17 percent from the number employed in 2000." — General Accountability Office, Aviation Safety: FAA Needs to Update Curriculum and Certification Requirements for Aviation Mechanics GAO-03-317, March 6, 2003.
Not even the FAA has precise answers to these questions. Pretty much all the FAA knows about this situation is the total number of A&P mechanics because the mechanic certificate is an FAA certificate and thus all A&Ps are in an FAA database. I've been told that the FAA purged the mechanic database a few years ago of all people over a certain age, just to clear out names of A&Ps no longer living, but the database isn't that meaningful.
Just because a person has the A&P doesn't mean that person necessarily works in aviation. The training that A&Ps receive is suitable for many technical occupations with more pleasant working conditions, and some estimates put the number of A&P school graduates who stick around to work in aviation around 50 percent.
The airline troubles since the 2001 recession have led to thousands of airline mechanic layoffs. Many of these mechanics have left aviation altogether, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, after discussions with maintenance shop owners over the years, I believe general aviation has not welcomed airline mechanics. It's not common to find former airline mechanics working for corporate flight departments or light-aircraft maintenance shops, although there are exceptions because some companies recognize outstanding individuals no matter their background.
"The Department of Labor estimates that 12,000 new airframe and powerplant mechanics will be needed each year for the next five years to fill the vacant jobs nationwide." — Debbie Heath, director of the A&P mechanics department at Fox Valley Tech, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, quoted in a story by Brian Sharkey, The Business Journal (Milwaukee), October 13, 2000.
How would you know there is a mechanic shortage? Never mind that the aviation media seem to find the subject compelling and bring it up on a regular basis. Just Google "aircraft mechanic shortage" and you'll see that there is no shortage of articles — some recent — on the subject. If there really were a mechanic shortage, what would the indicators be? That there will be no maintenance shop at your airport? Or that the maintenance shop can't do your work promptly? Or that work that does get done is not done correctly and you have an accident? Or that prices for maintenance double or triple? Or are we looking at the worst-case scenario: You can't find a mechanic who is legally authorized to sign off maintenance in your aircraft logbook, and the only way for you to keep flying is in violation of FAA regulations?
I believe that the answer to all of the above questions is that we are not there yet. We are not experiencing a mechanic shortage. What we are experiencing is the normal ebb and flow of a unique marketplace.
Aviation is unique because it is, in the scale of many human activities, a tiny industry. Aviation is puny compared to the automotive, medical, and computer industries. And all of these endeavors are highly attractive to A&P mechanics because they generally pay much better, the working conditions are better, the benefits are superior, and the opportunities are limitless. Just for fun, every time I read an article about the shortage of auto mechanics or nurses, I mentally replace the words "auto mechanic" or "nurse" with "A&P mechanic," and the article turns into the same story that I've been reading in the aviation media for the past 30 years.
Why is that important? Simply because these industries — automotive, medical, computer — pay their technical workers as much as double and more than what an A&P can make working in many aviation jobs. If an industry like the automotive industry, which has vastly more participants than aviation does, truly has a high demand for technical workers — call it a shortage if you wish — then that much larger industry is going to have a far easier time throwing money at the problem, i.e., paying people more money to stick around.
Consider this telling comment from one of the AOPA Pilot survey respondents: "A general aviation mechanic in Wisconsin should not be in it for the money. Auto shops get [a] $75-[to]-$100-an-hour shop rate while my customers scream if I go over [a] $50-per-hour shop rate." While we all know that most of us are in the aviation business because we love it so much, apart from that, why else would any mechanic, in Wisconsin or Timbuktu, be in it, if not for the financial rewards and benefits?
Aviation is strange in that the cost of the hardware and stuff needed for participation (airplanes, engines, parts, fuel, and pilot supplies) is huge, yet the financial rewards for participants are relatively low; ask your favorite flight instructor about the pay scale at the flight school. There is an odd bias among aviators and maintenance people toward giving everyone in aviation a break, perhaps because this is such a small industry and we are all friends, trying to make it easy for each other.
The result? Here's a good example. I asked a friend who runs a small maintenance shop located in a wealthy metropolitan area why his labor rate (less than $70 an hour) is so low given that his shop is so busy. He has little competition on the airport and customers fly from all over to do business with his shop. Basic economics suggests that when demand is high, prices should rise to smooth out the demand. Raising his prices would allow him to pay his mechanics better, pay for improvements to his facility, obtain advanced training, buy more tools and equipment, and earn the profits necessary to stay in business for the long haul. But, he told me, he can't raise his prices because local pilots would just end up having to sell their airplanes because they couldn't afford to fly anymore.
This is an interesting concept and it is widespread in aviation, especially at the light-aircraft end of the business. As an aircraft owner, you need to think about this seriously. If people like my friend don't charge enough, they aren't going to attract highly qualified mechanics who will stick around for a long time and help build a robust, long-lasting maintenance company. And that means you'll have trouble finding good maintenance.
A number of comments from the AOPA Pilot survey addressed the issue of low labor rates. The 298 respondents were almost evenly split between their answers to the question of how their shop could benefit from higher shop labor rates. Seventy-five agreed that higher rates would help attract more mechanics, while 114 said it would help retain mechanics longer and 102 felt that the extra money would help pay for additional training.
"Aviation operations are desperately looking for licensed aircraft mechanics because of record retirements — more than 4,000 in the last two years." — Julia Hollister, California Job Journal, January 21, 2001.
Is trouble finding good maintenance the definition of a mechanic shortage? I guess it could be construed as such, but it's more a matter of the strange economics of aviation, the camaraderie of this industry, and our yearning to figure how to keep participating without costs going too high.
When you're paying less than $70 an hour for aircraft maintenance and more than $100 an hour for automobile maintenance, doesn't that strike you as unusual? Especially considering the costs of being an A&P mechanic and running a maintenance shop. Here, for your edification, is a summary of some costs:
A&P school. The average program takes 18 months to two years and costs $30,000, unless you attend one of the dwindling but lower-cost publicly funded schools.
Tools. Mechanics must acquire their own set of basic tools, and after a few years, having $10,000 to $15,000 worth of tools is probably average.
Data. No one, even aircraft owners doing preventive maintenance, can legally perform maintenance without current maintenance manuals. A set of Piper manuals on CD for one model costs $349 from one provider. What if you work on multiple aircraft models? Start multiplying that number and it climbs quickly. One small Maryland maintenance shop spends $10,000 a year on maintenance data.
Recurrent training. Currently, there is no regulatory requirement for recurring maintenance training unless a shop is an FAA repair station. Mechanics who really care about this industry often obtain training on their own. Costs range from inexpensive online courses to multithousand-dollar classroom sessions at the big simulator companies. For example, Cirrus Design's online initial maintenance course costs $500 to $750 for the SR20 and SR22 models (the lower cost is for Cirrus service centers).
Facilities. Have you priced hangars lately? While some mechanics operate small businesses from a single-airplane T-hangar, this doesn't lend itself to building a growing company employing more than one mechanic. A hangar that can fit three or more airplanes costs thousands of dollars a month. Add heating to that (hardly anyone air-conditions hangars, except for some wealthy corporate flight departments), and the costs start to get scary.
Insurance. And you think the insurance for your airplane is expensive — try getting liability insurance for a maintenance shop. It is disturbingly, shockingly expensive. The shop has to do a lot of work to pay off that expense.
"That shortage manifests itself in [the] industry's struggle to meet today's awesome demand for aviation services. Most notable is an inability to grow to meet increasing demand." — Brian Finnegan, president, Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, In Flight USA.
The AOPA Pilot survey asked GA shops to list their biggest issues, and the results show that cost of insurance ranks high. Expenses such as compliance with FAA and other regulatory agencies' requirements were also prominent. Some responders complained that their biggest problems are customers who don't understand the difficulties of running a GA maintenance facility and who seek cheap maintenance.
As you can see, aviation mechanics have chosen a challenging career. It's not all bad; in fact, there are some terrific jobs in the maintenance end of this industry. The airline mechanics that were forced out of their jobs did not go willingly. Many of them were happy and, before 2001, were finally starting to get paid a decent wage.
One of the best jobs in aviation maintenance is in corporate aviation, working for a good flight department — for a company where the airplanes aren't just a whim of the aviation-loving chief executive officer but where there is a strong belief that airplanes are valuable, timesaving, safe, and secure transportation tools. Mechanics who work for these companies make good money (some around six figures), get great benefits, and have extremely pleasant working conditions (air-conditioned hangar anyone?)
So, why, you must be wondering, don't we hear about a mechanic shortage in corporate aviation? One word: money. This segment of aviation tends to be willing to spend whatever it takes to achieve an extraordinarily high level of safety, security, and reliability. It is not difficult for corporate aviation to find the money necessary to keep its participants extremely happy.
Airlines now are in a position of having to bargain for the lowest possible fees from vendors, which include maintenance providers because many airlines don't perform their own maintenance. This results in low wages and poor benefits and difficulties attracting mechanics. General aviation also suffers, with strong pressure from owners to keep costs down. This reduces the pricing power of the maintenance shops and prevents them from making their mechanics' jobs worthwhile and attractive.
Aircraft owners are in the difficult position of needing mechanics' services but trying to keep a lid on costs. For long-term health, general aviation is going to have to figure out how to make workers' careers more worthwhile. We don't have much control over that, but we can help on a local level by working closely with our mechanics so that we receive good value for the money we spend, and they stay in business — so we continue to have a place to bring our airplanes for service.
Matt Thurber is a senior editor at Aviation International News.
Links to additional information on A&Ps may be found on AOPA Online.
Where a shortage of aircraft mechanics shows up first is where pay and benefits are least attractive. That is why the one segment of the aviation industry — commercial aviation — that should have the most available workers has the hardest time finding people. Theoretically, all those laid-off mechanics from the airlines should be available to work at the third-party maintenance shops that now perform more than 50 percent of airline maintenance, but those jobs, mostly nonunion, are not attractive to former airline employees. On the other end of the spectrum is corporate aviation, with the best jobs and the easiest time finding people. In the middle are the light-airplane shops, stuck between needing to be able to pay employees enough to make a career as a mechanic worthwhile and having to keep owners reasonably comfortable with their operating costs. Because you are also stuck in this middle ground, neither wanting higher operating costs but understanding the need for mechanics to enjoy remunerative careers, you may benefit from some guidance on what you can do to make this whole maintenance process work better for everyone involved.