Once upon a time, the U.S. helicopter industry was doing great — not just with aircraft sales and technology, but with jobs, specifically A&P mechanics to maintain helicopters. It started in the late 1970s when many helicopter mechanics left the military after the Vietnam War ended and they brought their considerable talents to the private sector. Today, most of those “baby boomers” have either retired or are on a second or even third career, but they are not working on helicopters. The aviation industry is in crisis, not just helicopters, but fixed wing as well.
Last year Boeing predicted that in the next 20 years, the United States would need 500,000 A&P mechanics. If we play the numbers very conservatively and say that five percent will be needed in the helicopter sector alone, that equates to 25,000 A&P mechanics! Where will we find them?
I recently attended a one-day IA seminar for rotary-wing mechanics. There were about 150 mechanics in attendance and, out of those 150, only four had been in our business less than two years. Everyone else had more than 10 years in. Why are we not getting more young people wanting to get an A&P certificate? Unfortunately, the reasons are many.
Firstly, I would like you to do me a favor and participate in an experiment if you have a child in high school. (The child’s gender does not matter). Ask your son or daughter to meet with their school’s guidance counselor and tell the counselor that they want to become an A&P mechanic and report back to me on what they were told. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of the counselors do not even know what an A&P mechanic is! The U.S. public education system is failing our children. The system not only fails to teach our children what they need to succeed in life, but people in the system that our children turn to for guidance are mostly ignorant as to what fields are clamoring for help and have the most potential. As an industry, we need to educate the educators about the job potential and growth in the business of aviation maintenance.
Secondly, in two recent issues of HeliMx, I did interviews with the DOMs for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division, and with Air Methods Corporation, the nation’s largest provider of air medical transport services. In each instance, I asked them, “If you were hiring mechanics today, what credentials would you look for?” They said, “We want three years’ experience working on helicopters and an A&P ticket.” By the way, the starting salaries were excellent in both cases. Again, why are they having so much trouble finding qualified mechanics?
I recently paid a visit to Western Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC) in Glendale, Ariz. They have an A&P program for high school juniors and seniors (see the December/January 2011 issue of HeliMx for their story). On visiting West-MEC, I had the opportunity to talk to the students and I mentioned the interviews with LAPD and Air Methods and what their DOMs said. One student asked me, “Where do I get the three years’ experience after I graduate?” That is not an easy question to answer today. Once again, I hold our industry accountable to help answer that question. We need to do more to help ourselves as an industry. If any of you are working for maintenance departments that have an apprenticeship program, please let me know about it and who I could talk with at your company.
Thirdly and lastly is the delicate subject of earning potential. I certainly cannot and will not say that I represent anyone other than myself in this, but the vast majority of people in our industry that I have been privileged to meet and talk to have me utterly convinced that they do not have a job, but rather a career and a passion for what they do. Money is not the reason they do it.
Having said that, money (or the lack of it in starting out) is another factor that our industry has to be held accountable for attracting young people. You say that $15 to $20 an hour is not bad to start? Maybe — but NASCAR, power-generating companies and amusement parks are paying more (to name a few), and that can be persuasive if you do not have a passion for aviation.
Please write to me if you have any thoughts, comments or ideas on how we can help ourselves as an industry. Let’s help each other find the A&P mechanics of tomorrow.
R. Fred Polak | Editor