Clipping the Aviation Industry’s Wings: The growing manpower shortage

By Frank G. Mitchell, Ed.D.

Ask aviation leaders to identify their biggest challenge and you’ll probably discover that in today’s strong economy and tight labor market, one answer keeps coming up: finding, attracting and keeping talented people. People issues are clearly the cracks in U.S. aviation’s foundation.

The aviation industry is facing growing personnel shortages in all areas and levels while at the same time the baby-boom bulge of aviation employees are moving closer to retirement and the industry is expanding.

The latest FAA aerospace forecast for the fiscal years 2000 – 2011 show total scheduled domestic passenger enplanements increasing 55 percent, air carriers increasing 53 percent to 888 million and regional/commuters growing by 77 percent to 138 million. International passenger traffic carried on U.S. flag carriers is forecast to increase 91 percent to 102 million enplanements. The general aviation fleet is expected to increase by 12 percent over the period to total 231,000, an increase of 24,000 aircraft. General aviation hours flown will grow 31 percent to 39 million by 2011.

What this means is that over the next decade, thousands of highly skilled professionals will be needed for careers throughout the aviation industry. The FAA Blue Ribbon Panel report on pilots and aviation maintenance technicians concluded in 1993 that we will face a national shortage in the first decade of the 21st Century unless action is taken. In fact, we are already there. Take A&P technicians for example:

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the United States will need 155,000 A&P technicians in 2006-a 13 percent increase from the 137,000 now employed. And with attrition due to retirement and job switching, the shortage could be even greater. From air carriers and operators to manufacturing, FBOs and other service companies, open positions for aviation technicians are going largely unfilled.

One way the aviation industry can help resolve the problem is to invest in one of the industry’s crown jewels-our aviation colleges and universities. Working with those collegiate institutions that offer technician training today cannot only identify sources of current trained and qualified technicians but also open the doors to developing a continuous supply of manpower for the future.

Gary Kiteley, executive director of the University Aviation Association (UAA) which represents 120 colleges and universities, reported 25 four-year and 29 two-year schools offering aviation maintenance degree programs, with a total of 2,500 students enrolled. David North, editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, said in a recent editorial, “Aerospace companies and airlines should become involved with high schools and colleges, not only with financial support, but also in advisory roles to help select curricula of immediate value.” He went on to say aerospace must invest in students to stay ahead. Although there is a defined network of colleges and universities already dedicated to recruiting, training and graduating high-quality technicians, providing a natural recruiting base for the industry, the schools need industry partners.

Aviation companies could provide sufficient support to grow a long-term manpower base using a variety of cooperative agreement tools such as scholarships, internships, fellowships and just plain regular and ongoing communication. The University Aviation Association provides the vehicle for industry companies to make those connections and help industry collegiate partnerships to get started.

For example: At the 1999 fall conference of UAA, the association’s Technical Education Committee sponsored a panel discussion by industry leaders and educators on how to work with schools to increase the number of future aviation maintenance technicians (AMT). This committee is itself a contact point since it provides a channel through which the training and education goals of the aviation maintenance industry can be communicated to the 54 colleges offering AMT degrees. Information on the various programs and contacts of member schools are available from UAA, including names of high school aviation magnet programs used by UAA college members to recruit new students for their own programs.

UAA also offers a corporate member website so available jobs can be listed for students and faculty at UAA member schools. Specific information on UAA member schools and their programs can be obtained on the UAA Internet site at The e-mail address is [email protected].

The aviation industry must adapt to a different paradigm of recruiting and hiring through partnerships if it is to have the skilled workforce it needs to grow. Working through groups like the UAA is a must for the growing manpower shortage to be stopped. As Dr. Clinton Oster of the National Academy of Sciences recent Special Study on Aviation Careers said, “As we look to the future, our committee concluded that collegiate aviation programs were likely to become the dominant path into the aviation industry, not only for pilots and aviation maintenance technicians, but for management as well.”

In addition to working with technical colleges to help current recruiting and training efforts, aviation community members are encouraged to support the recently established Make It Fly Foundation to help attract younger people to a career in aviation maintenance. With all the technology options available today, the aviation industry is now beginning to realize that unless a long-term approach is undertaken, there may not be even an awareness about aviation among elementary, middle and high school age groups to develop an aviation career interest, particularly in aircraft maintenance.

If the interest base does not expand with the growth of the industry, fewer technicians means growth and safety problems for the industry. So Make It Fly is designed to expand awareness through educational outreach programs. The foundation is coordinating with industry groups like the University Aviation Association and the media to solicit broad-based support.

For information on the Make It Fly Foundation, check its website or e-mail them at [email protected].

Dr. Frank G. Mitchell is the immediate past president of the University Aviation Association representing two- and four-year collegiate institutions offering aviation programs along with government and industry aviation organizations.