Qualitair's managing director, Paul Conway, discussed at the MRO event some of the changes happening in the industry. Across the sector we are seeing skills shortages and below Paul discusses some of the impacts and how we can band together to plug the skills gap.

What’s the latest happening in this market?

The MRO sector can be broken down into a handful of sub-sectors and, for the sake of painting a complete picture, it is important to understand the nuances which exist between each one. The Line Maintenance support has a bias in terms of flexible labour consumption towards the summer months primarily because that is when the flying programs are at their peak for most operators. Base Maintenance on the other hand tends to be performed during the low season, so in the winter months, or at least it was. This has changed slightly, in as much as winter capacity seems to have hit its own ceiling and therefore the winter has stretched from classically being between October to March and now we are seeing much more demand throughout the year. In addition to Base and Line requirements, the ‘Shop services for components and engines are also continuing to trend upwards. There are some high profile issues with certain interior suppliers to the OAM’s and this has generated retrofit activity to remedy quality problems as well as the elongated intervals between heavy maintenance not taking into account the durability of the cabin. All in all this makes for a very busy sector that relies heavily on people to deliver products to customers and those customers are ultimately airlines. If any element of this equation is not present then it impacts on availability of aircraft unless alternative and generally costly alternatives are taken – loan engines, maintenance in peak season, late departures/cancellations, the list goes on.

 

What factors have contributed to the engineering shortage?

It’s a very difficult and complex question to answer in a few words but in a nutshell I believe that the industry is too inward looking. What I mean is that organisations are only focussed on their individual needs and not those of the industry as a whole. This can be seen in the pilot sector where those with the deepest pockets can buy a solution, i.e. offer attractive packages to draw people away from their existing employers and thereby short circuit a model where they invest and grow the skills needed. I see similar behaviour within the MRO sector and even though training programs are available they appear to be driven by a need to service the requirements of the MRO running the training program.  I appreciate that running training programs is a significant financial commitment for an MRO as well as a lengthy process, typically taking between 3-4 years formal training and then another year or so to gain usable experience. This factor and of course a significant increase in demand due to growing fleets and increased utilisation of aircraft/components has further exacerbated the problem. The average age profile within MRO is typically around 50 years of age for technicians, which indicates that we have a large percentage of the workforce heading towards retirement. This loss of experience is certainly not a positive factor, allied to this I am not seeing signs of new entrants filling this void at a sufficiently high rate to keep up with the projected growth in the MRO sector. 

 

How do you think the situation will develop in the next 5-10 years?

As mentioned above, numbers of qualified technical people does not appear to keeping up with demand at the moment, so I can only imagine that the situation will continue to worsen as the rate of retirees outweighs the “new entrants” to the industry. If we do not address this as an industry then I could see the smaller players within the aviation sector, airlines as well as MRO’s, will be squeezed out due to unsustainable costs. Then we are faced with a reduced number of suppliers in the sector therefore prices will inevitably rise and choice will reduce.  Of course, for those of us who have been in the industry long enough there is always the spectre of an inevitable downturn in aviation occurring at some point in our future, which may temporarily neutralise our current shortage but I believe it will only be a temporary stay of execution. A long-term sustainable solution should still be sought or we will be having the same conversations again and again.

 

How can we get more young people to see maintenance as an attractive career?

I stumbled into aviation almost by accident as a 16 year old apprentice at a small regional airline, with no real understanding of the industry and 34 years later some people might say that I still have a lot to learn! What I have discovered is that MRO offers an amazing opportunity to work within a diverse, challenging and incredibly exciting industry that’s never standing still. Those are some of the positive elements but we shouldn’t ignore that fact that it is still too male dominated, especially within MRO. It’s widely acknowledged that the number of females working in aviation is too low but the number working in MRO is quite frankly shocking. Awareness of this amazing career path needs to be shouted from the roof tops to generate some interest and it needs to happen to girls and boys at an early stage of their development in order for us to see a meaningful shift in attraction rates. There are some excellent initiatives in the UK being led by the Aviation Skills Partnership and the Royal Aeronautical Society but we must find other means to get the message out there about what is available. There isn’t a quick-fix nor a single solution but using our combined energies and the influence of associations like ERA I sincerely believe we can make significant inroads into the problem.  

 

What measures do you think regional airlines should apply to minimise the impact of the engineering shortage for their business?

We are incredibly fortunate to have the forum of our association to provide a means to air these issues and we must work together on raising awareness of our wonderful industry in the first instance. On a more practical level there is potentially a significant number of skilled people from other sectors who possess the raw skills and enthusiasm we seek but may think they’ve missed their chance to enter into aviation because they careers took them in another direction. The tendency to squeeze the living daylights out the supply chain in order to keep costs down has undoubtedly created some casualties in the MRO sector but also stifled the investment necessary to develop the next generation. Currently we are riding on the crest of an upturn in the fortunes of the maintenance sector but speaking from my experience of working within the commercial elements of MRO, thin margins certainly make you think twice before making a commitment on growth. 
Let’s work together to highlight our amazing industry to the next generation of technicians and engineers, young and old, girls and boys.