Who's Going to Fix Your Plane in 2031?

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Today I had the privilege of getting a backstage tour of the United Airlines maintenance terminal at San Francisco International Airport from my brother Tom, pictured here with his tools. Tom is a 20+ year veteran at United, and at 55 is only slightly older than the airline mechanic average age of 52.

When you fly, you hope that the folks who take care of the planes know what they are doing and that they take their jobs seriously. And they do.
Walking around around the hangars, I was struck by how calm and orderly everything is. People are collegial with each other, but they are clearly busy. I was even more struck by how few people were needed to get the job done. This is a combination of process control, automation, outsourcing and very experienced workers who clearly take pride in what they do. Like my brother, they love airplanes.

What you don’t see here is many young mechanics. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics data on airplane mechanics, job growth in this field is pretty flat in the coming decade. The BLS cites a number of reasons for this lack of growth – newer planes require less maintenance, increasing labor productivity, and the use of specialized and outsourced resources.

This report from Boeing paints a more optimistic picture, citing the need for 600,000 new aviation mechanics worldwide by 2031. The Boeing study also notes that a wave of retirement will hit the industry in the coming decade as my brother and his 50-something coworkers retire from their jobs. It would be encouraging to see a few more young people on the floor learning the trade from my brother and his teammates. That future workforce has a lot to learn.

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