College Degree for Aviation Maintenance Technicians?
The world of aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) is undergoing a fundamental transformation.
While there will always be a need for solid, experienced, wrench-turning A&P mechanics to work on the shop floor, MROs, aviation operators, and OEMs are now looking as much at a mechanic’s education credentials as they are his or her experience. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary one is that with the development of complex digital technology and its integration with aircraft systems and maintenance procedures, mechanics are increasingly expected to manage as well as maintain those systems. According to Kenneth Witcher, Dean at the College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Worldwide, the new emphasis on systems management has led to an increased desire in the industry to want more formal education.
Over the past 25 or so years the aviation industry itself has undergone a shift from analog to digital technologies in everything from avionics to digital engine monitoring and management. This shift in technology has brought with it a new understanding that an engine, for example, is but one part of a complex, interactive system of components that make up all the systems within an aircraft.
All the skills learned in A&P school that involved reading dials and turning wrenches have been taken over by digital technologies that manage subsystems and integrate them into the overall system. As a result, the average maintainer doesn’t have to simply know just how to take off a fuel control and replace it – it’s more likely he or she now has to understand how this system within the engine fits into the larger picture. “You don’t just need somebody who can identify what tools are in his toolbox. You need someone who can see the entire system and understand how the system integrates into, and manages, those systems,” said Mr. Witcher.
Another factor driving the growing need for college degrees is the number of multi-million- and multi-billion-dollar aerospace programs. The high price of the products made for military and scientific programs means that contractors are demanding mechanics with college degrees.
Mark Kanitz, Assistant Professor, College of Aeronautics Program Chair for Embry Riddle’s Master of Aviation Maintenance (MAM) degree program, puts it more bluntly: “The government necessitates companies (such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin) to require so much higher education before they can recruit anyone. They can’t have people walking around with just a high school diploma when they are demanding top dollar.”
What’s happening is that OEMs and others involved in large research and development programs are increasingly seeking maintainers who display a blend of expert shop-floor skills as well as critical-thinking, pragmatic, problem solving abilities.
Until recently, the maintainer out in the field and the engineer in the home office worked independently of each other. The AMT would communicate a malfunction or damage report to the engineer for evaluation. Together via phone or video call, the two would then discuss the repair, and the AMT would carry it out.
What companies seek now are AMTs who have some level of formal education, whether those are associate or bachelor degrees. The higher level of education and training means the company is more confident in empowering the AMT, who perhaps can more efficiently and competently perform both evaluations and repairs, at least within the scope of his or her training. Thus the engineer is free to focus on higher-order complex or critical issues demanded of that discipline.
As stated at the outset, there will always be a need for skilled and experienced mechanics on the shop floor, particularly to carry out routine annuals, 100-hours, and (relatively) minor repairs for flight schools, charter operators, and individual owners.
And while the A&P and IA certificates are currently the primary goal of many students, industry needs are spurring an expansion in degree programs in aviation maintenance. We’ll look at those in more detail in the next installment.
Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Immediate Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association
1. A College Education: Not Just For Pilots. Doug Nelms. Aviation Maintenance, August/September 2016, pp. 20-26.