There aren't enough airplane mechanics, either: In Rockford, AAR tackles the other big labor squeeze | AIR Message Board Posts


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Msg  3 of 3  at  5/27/2022 1:30:44 AM  by

jerrykrause


There aren't enough airplane mechanics, either: In Rockford, AAR tackles the other big labor squeeze in aviation, a shortage of maintenance workers that could keep planes from taking off

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There aren't enough airplane mechanics, either: In Rockford, AAR tackles the other big labor squeeze in aviation, a shortage of maintenance workers that could keep planes from taking off

 

Not long ago, AAR's aircraft maintenance facility in Rockford was having a harder time finding work than finding workers. Now the challenge is reversed as airlines return to the skies after virtually shutting down early in the pandemic.

AAR, which provides aircraft maintenance and spare parts for airlines, has 335 employees in Rockford, up from a low of 40 in 2019. A contract inked with Chicago-based United Airlines during the depths of COVID for heavy maintenance on Boeing 737s ignited a hiring spree that continues. AAR plans to hire 100 more workers this year, bringing it close to the 500 jobs it expected to create when the state of Illinois agreed to pony up $16.3 million to build the two-hangar repair base at Rockford International Airport. Illinois offered an additional $2.6 million last year for workforce development.

"The limit to our capacity right now isn't floor space: It's labor. If we had more people today, we probably could take on more work," says John Holmes, CEO of AAR, which also counts Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Air Canada as customers. "There's a lot of attention paid to the pilot shortage but not the mechanic shortage. It's the biggest challenge we face in our maintenance business."

As carriers ramp up in the busiest summer since the coronavirus pandemic began, companies such as AAR are scrambling to keep planes flying. If they can't find enough workers, it will take longer for planes to get repaired, which could cause flight delays if reserve aircraft aren't available or raise costs for the companies and their customers as they rely more heavily on overtime.

Fixing airplanes, like flying them, is another business where COVID worsened pre-existing, baby boomer-influenced workforce challenges. A Government Accountability Office study in 2020 found that half the FAA-certified workforce of mechanics and repair technicians was over 50, hinting at a looming retirement wave.

About 75% of maintenance on planes flown by U.S. commercial airlines is performed by outside firms such as AAR, based in Wood Dale. It's an $80 billion-a-year global industry, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Aviation repair companies employ about 182,000 U.S. maintenance workers, and airlines employ an additional 27,000, according to the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, an industry trade group. The Aviation Technician Education Council projects a shortage of 12,000 licensed mechanics by 2041.

"This is an industry problem that's been exacerbated by COVID but predates it," says Christian Klein, vice president of operations for Aeronautical Repair Station Association. Before the pandemic, the group estimated that technician shortages were costing the industry $100 million per month in lost revenue.

DOWNTURN

In the early days of COVID, air-travel demand dropped 90%. Less flying meant less maintenance, which led to layoffs. AAR's commercial aviation services revenue dropped 37% to $794 million in the fiscal year that ended May 31, 2021. At one point, it laid off 1,800 workers, although all of them have been brought back.

The downturn came just as the industry was starting to close the talent gap, with newly certified mechanics reaching a 17-year high in 2019. As layoffs spread across the industry, the FAA issued 30% fewer mechanic certificates the following year. New certificates largely rebounded in 2021, but hiring needs outstripped the supply.

"The industry recovered way faster than anyone expected," says Chris Toppin, AAR's vice president of human resources.

Workers at AAR's maintenance hangars in Rockford perform repairs such as replacing landing gear, along with heavy maintenance checks that include extensive teardowns and replacement of engines and other equipment. The hangars sit across a parking lot from Rock Valley College's aviation-maintenance program, where competition for graduates quickly increased.

AAR recently began offering $15,000 full-tuition scholarships to about five students a year. Known as fellows, they work part time at AAR while going to school and join full time upon graduation. They agree to stay at the company for at least two years or repay the tuition.

AAR has launched a flurry of initiatives aimed at expanding the talent pipeline. Its efforts include a transition program for people coming out of the military, a partnership with Olive Harvey Community College in Chicago, and a training program at the Aviation Institute of Maintenance on the city's South Side that's expected to produce 200 graduates a year.

Blayden Colwell, 20, who expects to graduate from Rock Valley next month and works part time at AAR, says the scholarship "makes it a lot easier." He was tending bar at weddings when a former football coach who works as an aircraft mechanic recommended that he join the training program. "Most people don't think about aviation."

That's long been a problem for the industry, as Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian acknowledged during a recent talk at Northwestern University, saying, "Trained aircraft techs will make well over $100,000 a year. It's a great job, and you can do it with a two-year degree."

But AAR and others compete for talent with the likes of Amazon and Target, which are pushing up starting wages for entry-level workers, as well as construction and other trades that also face labor shortages. Entry-level support technicians in Rockford start at $15.50 an hour, while FAA-certified technicians with more than five years' experience can make twice that.

The clearest sign of the tight labor market is that some airlines have begun hiring mechanics fresh out of school, says Troy Primus, AAR's vice president of operations, who oversees the two maintenance hangars in Rockford. "You never saw that before."

 
 


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