The Helicopter Workforce –Going … Going … Gone?

In the 2013 fall edition of ROTOR magazine, HAI president Matt Zucarro stated that, “The Next Generation priority that the helicopter industry needs to focus on is people, not avionics. The simple fact is that our industry is growing. Sales are up, markets are expanding and missions are multiplying. But while that side of our industry is growing, the number of new people entering our industry is decreasing. This is obviously not a sustainable trend for our industry.”

Zucarro hit the nail on the head, but it is not just the helicopter industry that is experiencing a smaller headcount. Industry as a whole is experiencing this phenomena. The incredible shrinking workforce has hit the American job machine big time.

There are many issues that have contributed and are contributing to this malaise. There is a lack of understanding in Washington on how private enterprise really works. The Affordable Care Act and its impact across all segments of our economy and low wages are all contributing factors. Couple this with the high cost of obtaining an A&P certificate, and the low availability of apprentice programs to help the newbie get some experience, and we have the making of a perfect storm.

Industry is holding back on hiring due to all of the uncertainties of the marketplace. Over time, companies have also learned how to do more with less. That could be construed as a good thing, but let us not forget safety issues and the concerns they raise about doing more with less. It appears that the heart of the workforce for men, those in the 25 to 54 year age group, is dropping, and has been for some time. While there has been a shift in the American workforce for years with more women entering the workforce, that trend peaked in the year 2000 and has also been in decline. The bottom line for us is: what can be done to encourage more people to obtain the qualifications required to become a helicopter maintenance professional? We need to reverse the trend of less people entering our workforce. How do we start?

In the world of real estate, we hear the words “location, location, location.” In the world of helicopter maintenance, I am constantly asked about opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. With more and more skilled workers either retiring or leaving for greener pastures, there are certain key areas that we as a marketplace must address. While identifying these areas is not difficult, I admit that finding viable solutions will prove to be more problematic. Here are some of those key areas:

Salary– Although not necessarily the most important issue, it is certainly a major factor. A recent study showed that the average starting salary for a newly-graduated A&P mechanic hired into our industry is around $16 per hour. Industries that compete for skilled A&P mechanics (such as amusement theme parks, power generating companies and NASCAR) pay more. Our industry needs to make salary levels as attractive as the other industries competing for the A&P mechanic graduate.

Location– Obviously there are parts of the U.S. where it costs more to live than in other locations. Again, depending on that cost of living and the salary being offered, it might prove difficult to attract qualified individuals. Perhaps a cost of living allowance to help offset expenses would be in order. A few years back, I spoke to an individual from a company that had no problem hiring A&Ps in the Pittsburgh area for $50K per year, but could get no takers for the same salary in the Denver area.

Experience/Hiring– Looking for an individual with a PhD, who has a minimum of 10 years experience and who is not older than 25 years of age? Right. Good luck, and what drugs are you taking? As crazy as that sounds, our industry still wants to hire people with experience (and why not?), typically a minimum of 3-5 years rotorcraft experience. You can teach from experience, but how do you teach experience? We need to get more companies to initiate, support and grow apprenticeship programs. This is where the newbie A&P graduates get their experience. Our industry is loaded with people who have vast stores of practical knowledge and know how. Can we put together a program our industry would recognize as a “standard” that all companies could use to implement an apprenticeship program? In this way, no matter where the apprentice receives his or her experience, he or she would meet minimum requirements and after a three-year period, he or she would have the entry-level experience so sought after.

For the companies that have these apprenticeship programs, there has to be a return on investment (ROI). Implementing this is not cheap in terms of monies and time spent. The apprentice would need to enter into an agreement of some type with the company that they would, upon completion of the apprentice program, work for the company for a period of time at the prevailing salary for their qualifications and experience.

I am sure that there are many other areas of concern that need to be addressed, but we can save those for another time. As an industry, only we can recognize the problems we need to overcome. As an industry, we can ill afford to wait any longer to implement the solutions that will eventually overcome these problems. 

R. Fred Polak  |  Editor