|Worker pinch about to hit home
The aerospace industry faces a severe worker shortage worldwide, and in the
next few years Mobile and Pensacola will be tested to see if they can fill
hundreds of new openings...
The numbers are large enough to make economic development officials drool. But
they can also make workforce officials and educators fret.
The issue: The aerospace industry worldwide is facing a severe shortage of workers,
from pilots to maintenance workers and more. Industry officials have been sounding
the alarm for some time now. But in the next two years it will hit home big-time and the
Gulf Coast will get to see if it’s up to the challenge of finding workers.
The Mobile-Pensacola area will have to find a way to pack the training pipeline to fill
up to 2,000 aerospace jobs that will be required by two companies - one in each city.
And if that’s not enough of a mountain to climb, more jobs may open as additional
suppliers come in. On top of that, there’s a hint of another assembly line (page 5).
If all the current plans reach fruition, Mobile, Ala., will need to some 650 workers for
two passenger jet assembly lines - one that’s already building Airbus A320
passenger jets and targeted for an expansion, and a second line that will assemble
A220 jetliners - the former Bombardier CSeries passenger jet.
Meanwhile just 60 miles to the east, Pensacola, Fla., which this summer opened the
ST Engineering Aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hangar at
Pensacola International Airport, is getting together the funding to build three
additional ST Engineering MRO hangars. They will bring 1,300 new jobs.
It’s an exciting development, for sure. But it also represents an incredible challenge
for workforce development officials at a time when young people have far more
options for their technical skills. Still, if the two cities can pull it off and manage to
meet the workforce need of both companies, it is likely to catch the attention of the
industry and serve as a case study for addressing a global problem.
Education was the topic last month on the first day of the two-day Aerospace Alliance
Summit at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Ala. The Alliance, which promotes
aerospace and aviation in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, holds a
summit each year to address issues important to the member states. The second day
looked at what lies ahead for the industry.
Their message to the more than 100 participants this year was clear: aerospace in
the four states is growing and steps need to be taken to ensure the workforce
pipeline is filled. In addition, technology is changing rapidly and will impact the
industry and the way the workforce is trained.
Neal Wade, director of the University of Alabama Economic Academy and chair of the
Aerospace Alliance, said in opening remarks that all surveys point to education and
workforce training as a top critical need. John Watret, chancellor of Embry-Riddle
Aeronautical University, reiterated the message.
“One of the things that we need to do is to make sure we have the pipeline of young
people coming in to it, and being able to follow in the footsteps of everyone that's
done so much work to bring the aviation industry to the Alliance states,” Watret said.
Others have also voiced concern over the shortage. In September the Federal
Aviation Administration held a Workforce Symposium that attracted participants from
across the aerospace spectrum. Participants heard that the number of jobs is
growing but the talent pool is not keeping up. No matter how good the training
pipelines may be, they’re useless without student interest, participants said (see
October 2018 education issue).
Education and training has been of interest to the participants of the Alliance
summits for years. Watret pointed out that the first time they focused on education
and training at a past summit they had 11 people, “and each year the small rooms
end up filling up.” This year half the summit focused on education and training.
Ron Garriga, associate executive director of U.S. Campus Operations, Embry-Riddle
Aeronautical University Worldwide, said the industry will need 790,000 pilots, 754,000
technicians and 890,000 new cabin crew over the next 20 years to maintain the world’
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Garriga said, “if that doesn’t concern you, where have you
been? … We have got to get our pipeline together.”
The Airbus experience
One aerospace company that has dealt with workforce issues in recent years is
Airbus, the European plane maker that’s had a presence in Mobile since 2005, but
kicked it into high gear when it opted to build A320 series jetliners in Mobile.
Airbus started from scratch building its Gulf Coast assembly line workforce. While it
had no trouble finding workers for its assembly line - there were 30,000 applicants for
the first 200 jobs - the company does have concerns about the future.
Stephanie Burt, director of Human Resources of Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility in
Mobile, said Airbus currently has 480 direct employees, with 10 percent engineers,
32 percent business professionals and 58 percent production workers.
In Phase I Airbus hired 250 people with at least five years of experience, and sent
them to Airbus’ European facilities for six to nine months for on-the-job training.
When they came back over 80 ex-pats returned with them to help with their technical
learning and to open the facility in Mobile.
In Phase II Airbus continued to hire experienced people but was also able to hire less
experienced workers with one to five years experience who did on-the-job-training
with the ex-pats.
“What does the third phase look like for us? It's extremely challenging,” Burt said.
“At this point in time we have definitely gotten enough applicants that have one to
five years of experience, but we know with 700 jobs that are going to saturate the
market by us alone. we're not going to be able to fill those jobs with the local
It’s the expected growth of the current A320 assembly line and the new one in the
works for the smaller A220 that is causing concern.
“We have a new facility in the A220 model and we’re looking to hire 400 to 500
individuals,” she said. “With our A320 ramp-up to a rate five (per month), we're
looking to hire over an additional 150 individuals.”
On top of that, there are likely to be work opportunities in the supply chain, which will
add to the workforce need.
New tech school
Burt said Airbus needs to look for a workforce “that we can develop ourselves here.”
“We need to do that through technical programs, and there are many technical
programs in the area, but we need to have help from our teachers, from our parents,
from our counselors so that children will know and individuals will know that the
aviation careers are worth going after, they can make really good careers.”
To help alleviate the crunch, Airbus is working towards creating a technical school of
its own that would help provide it with the larger workforce it will need with the two
The tech school would not be designed to keep people away from four-year or two-
year colleges, but to create more opportunities for the local and extended community
who may not take the traditional college path. It would open next year.
She said it’s not going to be a technical school in the traditional sense of a two-year
college, but rather a place where someone who went to a two-year school could
come and be assessed over three- to five-week program before being put in a
position at the plant or “you come to us with nothing and in 12 weeks we have you
capable to go out and do some OJT (on-the-job-training).”
“It's very important to have individuals who have a four-year degree or a two-year
degree, but it’s important to realize here in Mobile we have a large opportunity to
pursue another avenue for people in creating technical training programs for
individuals that have skills.
“They have a solid foundation out of high school, they understand what it means to
come to work to be a team player to have problem-solving skills ... those are very
important skills that are needed in the workforce. You don’t have to necessarily be a
rocket scientist to have these types of careers. We’ve got to get out in the community
and make this known. We’ve got to have partnerships with the schools, it can not be
just one business it has to be all of us sharing the knowledge with the parents and
with the teachers so that they can educate the students.”
All the panelists agreed that one of the great opportunities to increase the workforce
is to appeal to underrepresented groups. Neither women nor African-Americans are
represented in a way that reflects the makeup of the community.
We have to have a more diverse workforce than what we do today,” said Burt.
What lies ahead
There is little doubt that industries, including aerospace, will change in the future
given the rapid changes brought by innovation. That was the focus on the second
day of the summit.
“It’s an extraordinary time, the technology is changing almost everything about how
we deal with everything. It’s changing how we behave, how we learn, how we move,
how we make decisions and ultimately, how we fight,” said Vago Muradian, editor of
the Defense and Aerospace Report.
Advances in nanotechnology, materials, energy and more will be even more
profound than in the past two decades.
“Everybody’s sort of sitting around waiting for the dawn of AI (artificial intelligence),”
he said, but in fact, AI is already with us, shaping how we think and changing how we
Autonomy is a key part of commercial aircraft. Aside from the takeoff and landing,
everything is automated, he said.
Muradian pointed out that the Navy version of the highly advanced F-35 can land on
a carrier with such precision that it hits the center line at the same spot every time,
wearing out the wire and causing a bare patch on the flight deck.
“When it comes to autonomous vehicles, the whole notion of how we move is
changing,” he said.
“Even though I’m a gear head and I love cars and I love driving, at some point I’m
going to be a liability in this entire equation - all of us will be.”
Autonomous vehicles will be safer.
“It won’t drive angry, it won’t drive distracted, it won’t turn around to yell at the kids in
the back seat because they’re being stupid,” he said. And the vehicle also won’t be
texting somebody while driving.
The move to autonomous vehicles will have a major impact on those who drive trucks
or cars for a living, and they will require less maintenance than today’s combustion
Fewer people are working in manufacturing than in the past. He pointed out that if
you were to look at the Airbus manufacturing footprint 10 or 20 years ago, it would
have been different. Every change is going to cause significant disruption.
“How does the education system respond and educate a new generation of citizens
who will find meaningful, value-added work at the end of the day as opposed to being
a simple cog in a machine?” he asked.
He also said warfare is changing in profound ways. Future fighting may not be as it
was in the past and may not involve large scale exchanges of fire, but instead might
be an adversary making every single traffic light on the Eastern seaboard turn green
at the same time. Taking down the power and electric grid might be more likely.
This dynamic environment we’re living in puts a premium on speed and engineering
things very rapidly to stay a step ahead of others. He pointed to Israel and Sweden
as particularly adept at the game.
“I think it’s the most exciting time to work in aviation,” said Robert Hastings, of Bell,
the former Bell Helicopters. He recalled seeing Star Wars in 1977 - three times the
day it was released - and many of the things that are with us today were seen in that
movie, including artificial intelligence.
To show the benefits of machine intelligence, he said that if he backs out of the
driveway and had to stop short so he wouldn’t hit someone, it would make him more
aware the next time. But he would not be able to pass that along to his son. He simply
would not have the same learning experience.
People can learn from their own personal experience, but that really can’t be passed
along. Machines are different - they can learn and pass that along to other machines.
Raanan Horowitz, president and CEO of Elbit Systems, talked about the development
of technology that eventually led to the unique helmet used by F-35 pilots.
He said a little over 25 years ago, when Elbit Systems of America was in its infancy,
he was sent to Camp Shelby, Miss.
“We were submitting a proposal for the U.S. Army for a training system that would
support the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Abrams tank. We were supporting
something that was pretty innovative,” he said.
It used off-the-shelf commercial technologies, including a Sony Digital Camera, and
what was the state-of-the-art at the time, a video cassette recorder (VCR) from
“We needed to demonstrate a working training system,” he said.
He was given access to the military vehicles to find ways to install the system and
ensure it really worked. Ultimately the tests were successful and the company sold
450 of the systems to the military.
While 25 years ago doesn’t seem that long ago, the technology has changed
dramatically since then. Cameras and recorders are still used, but the technology
behind them has changed.
State of the art today might best be represented by the sensors and helmet mounted
display of the F-35, developed by Elbit and partner Rockwell Collins.
The F-35 system receives images from nine built-in cameras on the aircraft and a
hybrid tracking system that “creates the magic of a pilot being able to see through
the skin of the aircraft” 360 degrees on the visor of the helmet.
The pilot receives information from weapons systems, targeting, incoming threats,
and more. It’s all blended and displayed on the visor.
“Everything the pilot needs to fly and operate the aircraft is actually in front of their
face,” a development that eliminates the need for a heads-up-display in the cockpit
itself and frees up space.
“When you have all the information on the visor, you don’t have to look down,” he
said. It also has integrated night vision capability on the helmet that eliminates the
need for the pilot to wear night vision goggles.
“We’re looking at additional capabilities,” he said, including higher resolution, color
imaging, faster processing and more.
The helmet has not been without glitches, including a green glow pilots saw at night
that had to be eliminated. That issue was particularly dangerous for Navy pilots
landing on aircraft carriers at night.
Right now the system tracks the head movement of the pilot, but in the future it will
incorporate the ability to track the eye movement. He said he envisions a pilot being
able to use the movement of the eye to operate different systems, for instance,
blinking his eye to bring up additional information or contacting a wingman.
Horowitz said he can envision a future where the helmet interacts with the pilot
through more than just vision. It will use a broad range of sensors, including touch,
audible and others, and blend it together “to optimize performance.”
The condition of the pilot is also something of concern, and steps are being taken to
monitor the pilot’s health. It includes “incorporating a monitoring system, we’re using
state-of-the-art commercial medical sensing capabilities embedded in the helmet to
provide physiological and cognitive monitoring of the pilot.”
The goal is to predict his or her physical state in order to take steps to remedy the
situation. “And we can actually, if needed, transfer control to the machine so we can
bring the aircraft back home safely if the pilot is incapacitated.”
That hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
“We are taking a look at that, and I see that as an area that’s going to require a
whole lot more work in the future,” he said.
All this technology being created for the F-35 helmet is working its way into
commercial aviation, Horowitz said.
He said he’s a big believer in unmanned systems. They are the future and the
workforce of the future needs to adapt.
“Even with unmanned, in the end the design the development, the production of
these systems, is going to be done by you,” he told the gathering.