Hard Questions at FAA Workforce Event
On Sept. 13, aviation industry leaders came together in the historic terminal of Washington’s Reagan National Airport for the FAA’s inaugural Aviation Workforce Symposium. The event promised expansive discussion of challenges facing both pilot and mechanic recruitment and retention; although cockpit personnel continue to dominate attention, significant voices called for action to develop technical talent on the ground.
In the opening discussion to “set the stage,” Brett Levanto, ARSA vice president of communications, highlighted the costs to industry posed by inability to find technically-skilled workers and illustrated the direct connection between human capital and business performance. On a day when most presenters celebrated isolated talent-development programs – a feudal system of limited success that one FAA speaker described as “[everyone] inventing the same wheel” – Levanto chose instead to pose hard questions.
“I have a homework assignment for everyone here,” Levanto said regarding the fundamental cause of the technical skills gap in aviation. “Ask your friends who have kids – ask yourself or your spouse if you have them – would you like your son or daughter to become an aircraft mechanic?”
Following up on his own question to attendees, Levanto explained the weakening focus on technical skills development and hands-on careers, which have been sacrificed in the name of “college-track” learning in primary and secondary schools, has produced a deficit in applied knowledge. Without basic understanding of tools, mechanical systems and repair fundamentals in potential applicants, both technical schools and employers are left scrambling to fill workforce gaps without a reliable pipeline of individuals ready to fill open positions.
To construct that pipeline, Levanto concluded, industry must think holistically about its maintenance workforce. In addition to individually-certificated A&P mechanics, which tend to dominate discussion, employers and policymakers must embrace and encourage growth of repairman and non-certificated technicians.
“We need to help the market and we need to help our students” Levanto said after the event. “When it’s hard to find people who can turn a wrench, it’s going to be hard to fill hangars and component shops with technicians and even harder to perform work to keep the world in flight.”
The association has been leading an industry-wide effort to provide ways to find those people. To see the status of the legislative push to pilot a maintenance workforce grant program, visit arsa.org/legislative/grant-program-action-center.
Maintenance also took center stage during a lunch address by Suzanne Markel, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA). Markel used her 20-minute presentation to highlight PIA’s focus on providing useful aviation skills to students will minimizing cost burdens and complications. She underscored the challenges facing any organization seeking to develop technical talent, including duplicative and inconsistent FAA oversight, lack of available testing resources, restrictive curriculum and poor outreach to underrepresented populations.
In her closing, Markel urged industry stakeholders to collaborate in order to improve career pathways. She specifically noted the good work of ARSA and its colleagues at the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) and implored symposium attendees to get involved in addressing the aviation community’s most-pressing challenge – growing a sustainable and healthy workforce.
The agenda included addresses from Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in addition to panels of industry and government leaders. “I’ve never seen such a collection of experience talking on a single issue,” Elwell, who remained in the room or nearby for most of the day, said in his closing remarks. Based on his observations from listening to other presenters as well as from discussions held during networking breaks, Elwell noted the group’s “violent agreement” that workforce development is a real and pressing challenge.
ARSA members have been increasingly clear in recent years that technician recruitment is one of the most pressing challenges facing the industry. The association has become a leading proponent of efforts to improve aviation skills.