Growing demand for new aircraft and new aviation technologies are boosting employment opportunities in Southern Arizona.
Some of the region’s major aerospace and aircraft employers posted strong gains in 2015 — and at least one is having trouble hiring enough workers.
Bombardier Aerospace, the region’s biggest pure aero employer (Raytheon is counted in defense), reported a nearly 14 percent increase in its jet-maintenance workforce at Tucson International Airport last year and now employs nearly 1,000 here.
The gain was driven by increased fleet-customer maintenance and modification work at its commercial aircraft operations, Bombardier spokeswoman Dominique Cristall said.
Elsewhere, Marana Aerospace Solutions saw a resurgence of business at its Pinal Airpark site under new management.
The company, formed in 2011 when a private equity company bought the former Evergreen Maintenance Center, grew its workforce by more than 45 percent in 2015, to 365 workers, after several years of declining numbers.
“This place unfortunately had been dubbed a graveyard for a long, long time,” said Marana Aerospace CEO Jim Martin, alluding to the rows of Boeing 747s and other airliners that can be seen in storage from Interstate 10. “But it’s far from a graveyard — it is a thriving business today.”
The company is constantly on the hunt for qualified workers, particularly licensed airframe and power plant mechanics, he said.
“We could always use another 40 or 50 to fill the work that we have scheduled forward,” said Martin, a business turnaround expert who became CEO of Marana Aerospace in 2013.
Marana Aerospace is a top-level FAA repair station that can perform repairs and heavy safety checks on most airliners, including Boeing 747s. Its customers include engine maker Pratt & Whitney-Canada, major airlines and aircraft manufacturers, Martin said, declining to name others due to confidentiality agreements.
Martin said the independent repair industry overall is suffering from a shortage of qualified mechanics — particularly FAA-licensed airframe and powerplant mechanics.
Whether the market for mechanics is so tight as to comprise an industry-wide shortage is a matter of some debate. The Labor Department forecasts aircraft mechanics jobs to grow only 1 percent through 2024.
But, citing expected mass retirements of aging workers and other factors, aircraft giant Boeing has forecast the need for 113,000 new maintenance technicians in North America by 2034. The Labor Department estimates that 137,300 aircraft mechanics worked in the U.S. in 2014.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found in a 2014 report that available data didn’t prove there’s a shortage of aircraft techs, but it found somewhat of a tight labor market, especially among small, non-airline employers.
Whatever the data say, Martin said his company and peers in the third-party repair industry are feeling the pinch.
“It’s pervasive across North America, and we’re living it every day,” he said, adding that to save costs some airlines are now shipping planes to Central and South America or China for required maintenance.
To help address the shortage, Martin co-founded an aviation staffing business in Tucson, ACM Aviation Staffing, which already employs 40 recruiters.
Randy Wells, senior human resources director at ACM, said the main shortage is in FAA-licensed airframe and power plant mechanics.
Every mechanic isn’t required to be licensed, but the FAA requires all work to be supervised and signed off on by a licensed mechanic.
“A guy can be the best wrench out there, he can do a great job, but until he’s able to sign that piece of paper that says ‘this work was done properly,’ it doesn’t matter,” Wells said.
Marana Aerospace is working with Pima Community College’s well-regarded Aviation Technology Center — which places nearly 90 percent of its graduates in jobs soon after graduation — to help build the talent pipeline.
The Pima program has expanded in recent years, and is looking to grow more, program manager Tom Hinman said.
In September 2014 the program added a couple of acres to its lease at TIA to allow more ramp space. The school also added a large awning for outdoor work and is in planning for a new warehouse building.
The school, which has eight full-time instructors and half a dozen part-time teachers, would also like to expand its class capacity and offerings, but those plans are still in the works, Hinman said.
About 150 students are in the program’s structural repair, avionics and airframe and power plant courses at any time, and 82 to 87 percent have job offers or promising interviews by the time they graduate, Hinman said.
“We’d like to double or triple our capacity,” Hinman said. “Finding the resources — that’s the challenge, and then you’ve got to make sure you got job opportunities for everyone.”
Another challenge, he said, is keeping enough graduates around to help local repair lines running, as the Pima grads typically have opportunities nationwide.
The Pima aviation program has launched a high school internship program with the Pima County Joint Technical Education District, Hinman said, and the school has 36 mostly military veterans in a special program aimed at upgrading their skills to fit commercial industry needs.
The school also has boosted the percentage of graduates that take the FAA license tests from around 30 percent in 2009 to about 80 percent now, Hinman said.
ACM Aviation’s Wells said they find many students graduating from Pima get their certificates but can’t afford or otherwise don’t end up taking the FAA test.
Bombadier’s Cristall said the Canadian-based company has hired most of Pima’s aviation-tech graduates over the past few years and remains committed to the school.
This year for the first time, Cristall said, Bombardier is offering five internships through the Pima County Joint Technical Education District in conjunction with Pima Community College.
Meanwhile, employment at other local aerospace employers was flat or down slightly in 2015.
Tucson-based cockpit electronics maker Universal Avionics Systems Corp. reported a slight dip in its payroll, to 229 employees in 2015.
But the company sees growth ahead as it rolls out a new avionics system to comply with requirements under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, which incorporates GPS satellite data into aircraft navigation systems and adds new communications technology.
“We see a big uptick in the next four or five years, and that’s right here,” Universal Avionics Vice President Dan Reida said during a recent visit to the company’s south-side plant by Sen. John McCain.
Reida noted that the company is testing a new, integrated flight deck to be offered on HD Helicopters’ MD 902 Explorer.
The company also is looking to boost its defense-related business, and is currently vying to put its Next-Gen avionics suite on Sikorsky’s Blackhawk military helicopters. Military and other government work now accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s business, Reida said.
Among other Star 200 aerospace employers, luxury aircraft interior maker B/E Aerospace declined to participate in the Star 200 this year. The company announced some workforce reductions last year but made no layoff announcements and didn’t file any mass-layoff notices in Arizona.