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Despite the ever-increasing demand for air travel and its collision course with a severe global pilot shortage, there is one simple fact: Airplanes won’t be going anywhere if there are no aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) to fix them.
According to the 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a whopping 769,000 new maintenance technicians will be needed to maintain the world fleet over the next two decades.
From a national perspective, a labour market study released by the Canadian Council for Aviation & Aerospace (CCAA) in March 2018 anticipated that by 2025, about 5,300 new AMEs will be needed to keep pace with industry growth and retirements.
Canadian colleges graduate about 600 maintenance technicians per year, according to the CCAA, yet only about 77 per cent go on to work in the industry. More than 25 per cent of companies surveyed for the 2018 report said they were having difficulty filling aircraft maintenance positions, especially those related to specialty areas such as structures and avionics.
There’s no denying the shortfall that is already being felt in hangars and shops across the country – and it’s only going to get worse.
According to Transport Canada data provided to Skies, there were 17,662 active AME licence holders living in Canada as of June 26, 2019. Half of them (8,762) are currently above age 50. Of those, just over 50 per cent is actually above age 60.
Think about that for a second: Half of Canada’s existing AMEs are at or near retirement age!
The situation is dire in other countries, too.
Who will keep our future fleet in the air? We need a new crop of AMEs equipped with next generation skills such as composites repair and digital troubleshooting. At the same time, older aircraft will continue to fly, and so-called legacy skillsets will still be in demand.
A united front
The solutions to the AME labour shortage aren’t easy or obvious. Fixing the issue will take a concerted team effort from industry, academia and Transport Canada, which regulates AME licensing.
The CCAA labour market study notes that students are increasingly benefitting from work-integrated learning (WIL) programs, which include co-ops and internships.
Through a $4.8 million grant obtained from Employment Social Development Canada (ESDC) in 2017, CCAA is working to create more than 1,000 student WIL placements for post-secondary students through 2021. Employers offering eligible programs to approved post-secondary education students receive wage subsidies equal to 50 to 70 per cent of the wage cost.
“Work integrated learning is key, as it introduces students to the leading-edge equipment they will be expected to use as well as introducing them to workplace and corporate culture,” noted the CCAA report.
It’s a formula that is endorsed by many, including Traci Brittain, chair of aerospace and aviation and the person responsible for aviation training at Centennial College in Toronto.
The college – along with others across the country – has been participating in the CCAA-led WIL program with Air Canada.
Between the first and second year of Centennial’s two-year aviation technician programs, selected students complete a 15-month work term at the airline.
“Generally, they have placed a little over 30 students each year [since 2017],” said Brittain. “They have work terms they must do across the company. Students have mentors and coaches, and all of that training they’re getting is connected to the trade they are interested in going into.”
Following the work placement, said Brittain, students return to the college to complete their second year of formal training.
In addition to giving students a realistic glimpse into their chosen career and helping them make important professional contacts, work-integrated learning programs fill another important void too – what many have referred to as the skills gap.
Brittain explains it well.
“The students who are coming out of the various schools across the country don’t necessarily exit with the ideal level of skill and knowledge that the industry would prefer,” she said. “Companies are trying to replace their exiting experts, but our programs are designed to provide a foundation for students to continue their learning. Industry’s job is to build on that foundation.
“Unfortunately, we no longer have the luxury of time for that to take place – the industry is experiencing the [AME labour] shortage now. So, there is a gap there, and we are working with industry to address it.”
Brittain said work placements were done in the past, but “it’s just been more focused now because of the shortage.”
In addition, post-secondary institutions across the country are taking a hard look at how their training programs can be adjusted – working within the prescribed government syllabus – to produce a more well-rounded candidate.
Officials from Centennial sat down with the college’s industry-led program advisory committee to ask what skills were lacking in new graduates. The answer? So-called soft skills.
Communication, business skills, critical thinking and leadership are difficult for an employer to teach in an industry environment, so Centennial decided to create a three-year aviation technician program that offers training in those areas.
It will be offered for the first time this coming September, said Brittain, and she expects enrolment will steadily increase.
Recruiting and training
In the last three years, Sam Longo has noticed something new at the Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Association of Ontario (AME Ontario) annual symposium.
Until he recently became president of Aircraft Maintenance Engineers of Canada (AMEC) – a new national organization formed to unite Canada’s regional AME associations – Longo was president of AME Ontario.
He said he’s seen a few telltale signs that industry is now feeling the effects of an AME shortage. Chief among them is that major airlines are actively recruiting at the symposium – and they’re not just looking for licensed AMEs, but also connecting with post-secondary institutions to develop new co-op programs.
“We’ve always promoted our symposium and workshops as a networking tool,” said Longo. “But it’s tough for smaller companies to let their AMEs go to the event [due to workload], and now last year we heard they were worried about them getting poached.”
Theresa Davis-Woodhouse is director of project management at CCAA. She said the organization has held a number of focus groups across the country, and “the shortage of pilots and AMEs comes up at every one.
“Some in the North say they can’t recruit anyone locally – and that’s complicated by the fact there is no AME training in the North.”
Davis-Woodhouse said meeting the challenge will require a multi-pronged approach.
One idea is to recruit AMEs from multiple sources.
“You want young people as well as experienced people who have transferred from other industries, and people who want to immigrate to Canada who have those skill sets,” she said, adding that Transport Canada could streamline licence conversions.
CCAA is currently working on a certification program funded by the government to help new Canadians prove their skill sets. There is an online test/self-assessment tool as well as a practical assessment.
The council can also certify required competencies for those who don’t follow the traditional post-secondary institution path to their AME exams. In addition, CCAA has introduced a suite of products for employers and colleges to develop students’ soft skills including team building, time management and mentorship. Currently, there is no fee for these programs for students involved in approved work-integrated learning placements.
Davis-Woodhouse said that while Canadian schools provide very good training for aircraft maintenance technicians, their hands are somewhat tied by current regulations.
“The colleges are audited by Transport Canada and they have to follow what Transport Canada mandates they teach,” explained Davis-Woodhouse. “There is not a lot of room to implement new training and get rid of obsolete training. I think it’s time for the training to become more competency-based and less time-based, and to let industry have more input.”
Robert Donald, executive director of the CCAA, wholeheartedly agrees. He’s made the issue one of his top priorities.
“Transport Canada has Standard 566/Appendix C,” he told Skies. “This is what a college must teach if they want to be approved as an authorized training organization. But that curriculum hasn’t been updated since the mid-1990s and industry has evolved dramatically.”
For example, Appendix C requires students to have an understanding of fabric surfaces (cloth wings) and wood components.
“If you ask commercial airlines, this time could be much better spent on modern technology,” he said.
Led by Donald, the CCAA is pushing for an update to Standard 566/Appendix C. He said the council and an industry consortium are trying to create a new multi-disciplinary aircraft technician designation that includes not just maintenance training, but also avionics and interior systems capabilities.
“With the students coming out now, you’d need three different trades to do this,” explained Donald. “And, schools can’t teach soft skills because there is no room in the Transport Canada curriculum. You have specified hours and specified content. That prevents the colleges from responding to more of what their advisory committees request.”
In addition to prescribing what students learn, Transport Canada also has guidelines about how they learn it. For example, blended learning programs – in which students complete an online course and then have a discussion in class followed by an exam – are not currently permitted.
Modernizing the training curriculum includes adapting alternate forms of learning, said Donald.
Centennial College’s Brittain said there is no doubt the regulatory standard needs to be modernized.
However, she issued a cautionary statement: “[We must] ensure that any enhancements or changes to those standards are in fact something that academia can fulfil. For example, requiring college programs to teach advanced technologies because one or two operators have or use such systems would be problematic; likewise, it would be difficult for colleges to train on systems that they cannot afford to purchase or run. Any updating of the basic training standards needs to ensure there is a clear distinction between what the expectation of an educator is at a basic training level versus that of the industry at a work entry and training continuation role.”
Like Davis-Woodhouse, Donald is in favour of implementing competency-based training for pilots and AMEs. Instead of logging a prescribed number of hours in order to achieve licences and/or ratings, a competency-based approach would evaluate a student’s unique skills and abilities and advance them only if they are fully capable. Ability – not hours – becomes the key focus.
Dr. Suzanne Kearns, an associate professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo, has long been a proponent of evaluating students based on their demonstrated abilities. It’s especially important during a labour shortage, she said, to graduate students as efficiently as possible.
“From an international scale, the need for maintenance engineers is more critical than any other aviation group,” she said. “If you look at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) numbers, between 2016 and 2036, they provided big numbers. I broke it down to see how many you’d need to produce every day and it was 140 maintenance engineers every single day for 20 years, just to meet global demand!”
Kearns is part of the ICAO Next Generation of Aviation Professionals group. Its members have agreed to focus on initiatives to attract, educate and retain aviation and aerospace professionals.
“From the attraction perspective for the maintenance profession, it’s about encouraging people to join the industry, and giving young people exposure to it,” she said.
Many high schools have an auto shop, but few have an aviation component.
The CCAA’s Donald said many high school guidance counsellors are unaware of the opportunities in aerospace. “Some of them discourage students from pursuing careers,” he said. “There is a perception this is a cyclical industry but that is not true anymore. There are hundreds of great careers and high-paying jobs.”
From the education side, Kearns said there needs to be a focus on helping interested students enrol in aviation and aerospace programs.
Finally, she said there are a number of ways to retain staff, but at the end of the day it’s all about making them an attractive offer, including good employment conditions, opportunities for professional development, and cross-border and cross-profession skills transfer. This would include, for instance, easier foreign licence recognition, or helping people move laterally within the aerospace industry.
Technology plays an important role when it comes to supporting education, including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
When Boyd Parsons started in the aviation maintenance industry in 1992, he had no idea that 27 years later, he’d be the co-founder of a new company that is focused on introducing new immersive technologies to change the way people learn.
His career includes more than 20 years with Air Canada, much of it focused on technical education. He was involved with establishing the airline’s WIL program in association with CCAA, but he saw an opportunity to do more.
In November 2018, he left Air Canada and co-founded GS5 – Global Students, Skills, Sustainability, Safety and Systems Thinking. It’s a virtual organization that is partnering with academia, government, industry and leading companies such as Manpower Group, Silverback Productions and Shadowbox Learning Services to address what Parsons called the “perfect storm” in the aviation and aerospace labour markets.
GS5’s focus is turning traditional curricula into immersive technical curricula using VR technologies.
“We integrate learning with work and we do that by engaging technologies. What they would normally learn in one week of college, they can achieve in less than 10 hours, and work in the industry as they learn,” said Parsons.
“We believe there is a great opportunity to lean learning.”
The company is starting out by creating VR course materials for jobs that traditionally don’t have instructional materials, such as airside ramp attendant or aircraft interior technician.
“At GS5 we believe the opportunity is here: The latest generation uses technology to learn, and technology has now advanced enough to facilitate that type of knowledge transfer. If you use a gamification approach, it becomes an experience.”
Parsons is confident that GS5 will be able to deliver competency-based, evidence-based VR learning that “would allow an individual to experience any aeronautical system.
“I do believe that yes, the technology is already there today and it’s just a matter of industry, regulators and academia coming together to figure out how to evolve our whole ecosystem,” he concluded.
That sort of total co-operation will be essential to meeting the challenges presented by a serious aviation and aerospace labour shortage that is already upon us.
From harnessing the power of technology to the formation of exciting new partnerships between industry, academia and Transport Canada, there are many initiatives underway to attract, educate and retain the aviation and aerospace next gen.
As the clock ticks toward retirement for even more AMEs, it is becoming more and more obvious that a complete industry reset is the only option to meet the increasing global demand for air travel while maintaining aviation’s high overall safety rating.
There is no time for “business as usual.” It’s time to take bold, innovative steps toward the new normal.