Aircraft maintenance technicians are projected to be a scarce resource in the coming years – and the shortage of labour couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the industry prepares to tackle the future challenges associated with accommodating a significantly larger, newer and more advanced global fleet. How should airlines and MROs prepare aircraft maintenance challenges ahead? Find out here.  

More than 10.000 new aircraft are expected to enter into service by 2027, increasing the global fleet by 40 percent, according to Oliver Wyman’s fleet forecasting data.

At the same time, a record number of new planes are coming into service increasing not only the workload of aviation mechanics but also the skill sets required to support the expanding fleet. 

The surging demand is creating new challenges for aircraft maintenance in general, and more specifically, many experts project an aircraft maintenance technician shortage in 2020 and the years to come. 

Read more: Breaking down the aviation MRO forecast for the new decade

MRO labour demand infographic
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The aviation industry has an aging workforce  

The situation is causing concerns about a labour shortage in the industry – and for good reasons; the increase in fleet seems to be heavily outpacing the projected maintenance technician supply, especially in the US and Europe, according to data from Boeing and Airbus market forecasts.

»We believe there will be a shortage of aircraft maintenance technicians in the next 10 years. In the US, the average technician is 51 years old, which is nine years older than the rest of the workforce.

This means that half of the current aircraft mechanics will retire in the next 10-15 years. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for US airlines, as they are in the middle of refleeting and need the seasoned mechanics to support the many aircraft coming into service in the years to come,« comments Brian Prentice, Partner, Oliver Wyman, in a report published on the company’s website.

MRO workforce challenges across the aviation industry

The MRO workforce challenges in aviation is apparent across globe. Europe, too, is facing similar challenges, and although Asia currently seems to have enough mechanics available at the moment, this may not be the case in a few years’ time. According to Airbus, the aviation MRO industry will require 635.000 new maintenance technicians by 2037, with Asia requiring a massive 44 percent of these.

»Executives in Europe report that it’s getting harder to attract, develop and retain aircraft mechanic and aircraft maintenance technicians than it ever has been before,« says Brian Prentice and proceeds:

»In Asia, though they have enough aircraft mechanics today, they might face challenges too in the coming years. With a good portion of the nearly 10.000 aircraft being added to the world fleet going to that region, it’s going to be even harder to keep up with the number of mechanics and skill-sets required.«

So what does this mean for the aviation industry as a whole? The impact could be dramatic.

The shortage of labour may drive up maintenance costs for airlines and increase turnaround times for scheduled maintenance; a potentially devastating blow for the industry, as many airlines already struggle to keep profitability at a reasonable level due to low-cost tickets.

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A mechanic checks aircraft landing wheels

These are MRO workforce challenges on the horizon

As indicated previously, the anticipated shortage is due in part to an aging global population. But this is far from the only issue. The real challenge going forward will be attracting new talent to the MRO industry, and that is proving to be difficult.

There are plenty of people from the millennial generation who could step in to take the place of the seasoned mechanics of today – but they simply aren’t interested, it seems.

The issue of attracting younger people to the aviation industry is becoming urgent, and the subject was even raised at multiple sessions at this year’s MRO Europe in Amsterdam. 

To some degree, the problem stems from the aircraft maintenance technicians’ current wages, benefits and perks, concludes Oliver Wyman, who conducted a study which showed 51 percent of respondents in the MRO industry identified wages and benefits as an obstacle.

However, wages and benefits aren’t the only issues. According to The Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), up to 30 percent of those who finish an aviation maintenance training course end up working in another industry. This further highlights the need to make the industry appealing (again).

New fleet – new skill sets

With the abundance of new planes coming into service, 58 percent of the global fleet will – within the next 10 years – be comprised of new fuel-efficient aircraft, designed and built after 2000.

Along with new aircraft platforms comes new skill set requirements for the aircraft technicians responsible for the maintenance. This means that the aviation maintenance team of tomorrow will need a wider range of skills than ever before, further complicating the expected labour shortage.

On top of this, the area of aircraft maintenance is set to go through some dramatic changes in the years to come, due to the increasing amount of modern technology, such as data acquisition points and state of the art avionics that new aircraft are being fitted with.

Maintenance workers of the future will need to know and, to a certain degree, understand these new technologies. Oliver Wyman has identified three emerging technologies within aviation MRO that will be absolutely vital to know for future technicians:

  • Composite material repair and manufacturing
  • Collection and reporting of data for advanced analytics, big data, and predictive maintenance
  • Newest avionics and electrical systems

What are the solutions going forward? 

It’s becoming apparent that the airline and MRO industry must do something to address the future MRO labour challenges – preferably sooner rather than later. Oliver Wyman identifies three primary challenges that the industry has to resolve in the next couple of years. These are:

  • Protecting the technical pipeline
  • Raising the desirability of working in aviation maintenance
  • Recruiting across a broader demographic

Mechanic smiling while on the phone

Upgrading IT systems and technologies is thought of as one way to ease some of the pressure from the labour shortage going forward, as it will allow MROs and airlines to optimise their operations and workforce productivity.
At MRO Europe 2018, multiple speakers also encouraged the industry to consider hiring people with other professions than what is usually associated with aerospace. Creating a more diverse workforce could lead the aviation industry in a new and perhaps more efficient direction.

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However, this alone will not be sufficient to combat the impending talent shortage. According to Brian Prentice, Oliver Wyman Partner, upgrading technology is just one of three ways that the industry can prepare for the future labour market.

»There are three things that airlines and MROs can do to address this looming technician shortage: First, they can expand the candidate pool – by entering into public-private partnerships in order to attract more individuals into the technical profession. Second, they can invest in training to get new mechanics up to proficiency as quickly as possible. And third, they can invest in technologies and tools to provide the mechanics what they need at their point of views,« Prentice explains.

Such technologies and tools could be augmented reality and/or virtual reality. These technologies are slowly emerging and offer a cost and time friendly solution to the labour shortage by providing expertise, on demand, at any location in the world.

Companies, such as XMReality have already developed the platform necessary to connect onsite operators with technical experts who, in real time, can give maintenance workers guidance through complex tasks.

Now, it seems, the ball is in the airlines’ and MROs’ court. One thing is certain though, the MROs and airlines that are adequately prepared to meet the shortage of labour head-on will have a lot to win in the years to come as demand for their skills rises.

How does the industry prepare the supply chain for future challenges?