Know any airplane mechanics? A wave of retirements is leaving some US industries desperate to hire

May 31, 2023, 2:22 PM

Students at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics from left: Nikki Reed, William Onderdonk, Jeffr...

Students at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics from left: Nikki Reed, William Onderdonk, Jeffrey Natter and Joshua Lindberg study an engine on a Cessna 310 aircraft in West Mifflin, Pa., Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Students graduating from PIA have been awed by how much they're in demand. Recruiters are desperately seeking more aircraft mechanics for the airlines, airplane manufacturers, and repair shops that need them. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Kwasi Bandoh, a senior recruiter for an airline, stood before a group of aviation mechanic students at their graduation ceremony last month and congratulated them for all having jobs.

As some of the students began nudging each other, Bandoh realized that perhaps not every one of them had already been hired.

“Who doesn’t have a job?” Bandoh demanded, surveying the 15 graduates before him at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics’ training facility in Hagerstown, Maryland. “Who doesn’t? Because I have a job for you.”

The crowd of about 70 friends and relatives, gathered in a hangar where the students had been trained, laughed appreciatively. Fourteen of the 15 graduates did have jobs, and the only one who didn’t had an interview lined up for the next day.

As happy as the moment was for the graduates, it epitomized the struggles of recruiters like Bandoh, who are desperately seeking mechanics for the airlines, plane manufacturers and repair shops that need them. Most of their existing mechanics are aging, and demand for travel is growing.

Across the U.S. economy, other industries, too, face the same formidable challenge: Replenishing a workforce diminished by a surge of retirements that began during the pandemic and has continued since. It’s a growing problem in such fields as construction, manufacturing, nursing and some professional industries like accounting.

Since 2019, the proportion of retirees in the U.S. population has risen from 18% to nearly 20%, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — equivalent to about 3.5 million fewer workers. And the trend seems sure to accelerate: The percentage of workers who are 55 or older is nearly 24%, up from only about 15% two decades ago.

The surge of retirements, along with a slowdown in immigration that began during the pandemic, are the primary factors behind the labor shortages that continue to bedevil some employers.

The aging workforce also helps explain the confounding nature of the economy right now. Even as the Federal Reserve has relentlessly pumped up interest rates to fight high inflation, hiring has remained surprisingly robust. Regardless of where interest rates are, many employers simply need to replace people who have left.

Job growth has been stronger, in fact, than economic growth would suggest. The economy reached a half-century low of 3.4%. On Friday, the government will issue the May employment report, which economists predict will show another solid gain of about 190,000 jobs.

Companies that must fill jobs tend to raise pay to attract and keep workers — a trend that can fuel inflation as those same employers typically raise their prices to cover their higher labor costs. That dynamic is complicating the Fed’s efforts to tame inflation.

In the airline industry, more than one-third of mechanics are between 55 and 64, according to government data. Fewer than one in 10 are under 30.

“Everybody’s getting ready to retire, and not enough people are coming in to take the jobs,” said Mike Myers, a maintenance manager for Piedmont Airlines, in Hagerstown, a regional feeder for American Airlines.

The new graduates of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics have been awed by how much they’re in demand. One of them, Will Gower, said he weighed multiple job offers at nearly twice the $15-an-hour wage he had earned at the retail job he held while in school.

“It was almost overwhelming how many companies were throwing jobs at you,” said Gower, 21. “Anywhere there’s an airport you can go work.”

Next month, Gower will join Commute Air, Bandoh’s company, along with three of his classmates, and will receive further training in Houston.

In the past year, the air travel industry has hired roughly 45,000 people, enlarging its workforce by 9%, to more than a half-million. That’s triple the pace of the U.S. economy’s overall hiring.

United Airlines has said it plans to hire 15,000 workers this year and more in coming years. It expects to add 2,300 pilots, in part to offset about 500 retirements. Kate Gebo, United’s executive vice president of human resources, said she foresees a shortage of airplane mechanics, with up to half of United’s mechanics already eligible to retire.

In the construction industry, the proportion of workers ages 55 and older doubled from 2003 to 2020, to nearly one-quarter, according to the government.

Anirban Basu, chief economist for the Associated Builders and Contractors trade group, said that in addition to aging, industries like aviation maintenance and construction share another challenge: Fewer young people want to take jobs in what are often perceived as less-secure, blue-collar work.

When the now-retiring baby boomers began working, Basu said, “there was the notion that being a blue-collar tradesperson was a solid and secure path to prosperity.” But as factories shut down across the country, “the notion increasingly became that for one to become part of the American middle class, one would likely need to have more formal education, namely, a bachelor’s degree.”

The result, he said, is an economy short of factory workers, backhoe operators, welders, electricians and other skilled trade workers.

If there’s one trend that might ease, if not solve, the problem it’s that Americans below retirement age have been re-entering the job market, likely drawn by steady hiring and higher pay levels. The proportion of these adults who either have a job or are looking for one now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

Yet for now, an aging workforce remains a problem even for some white-collar jobs, particularly accounting. About three-quarters of accountants are “nearing 60” and approaching retirement, according to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

Tom Hood, an executive vice president of the association, said the industry is finding it hard to attract young college graduates. Many of them prefer data science or finance, while accounting struggles with a stuffier, more old-fashioned image.

“We’re getting squeezed from the older part and the younger part as well,” Hood said.

Nela Richardson, chief economist at the payroll provider ADP, said research shows that countries that have many retirees who spend money and consume and have fewer people working typically face higher inflation. In those countries, demand for goods and services tends to exceed the supply.

“This is the missing piece in terms of our dialogue about, can the Fed drive inflation back down to” its 2% target? Richardson said.

Some economists have said they worry that the job market’s resilience, and the resulting fear that inflation will remain high, will lead the Fed to send its benchmark rate even higher, which could derail the economy and cause a recession.

Gower, who is from Covington, Louisiana, near New Orleans, isn’t exactly worried about a recession. His new job as a line mechanic at Commute Air will pay $30 an hour to start, plus higher wages for night shifts.

“We’ve all got great futures ahead of us,” he said.

Brian Prentice, a partner at the OliverWyman consulting firm, estimates that the aviation industry will endure a shortage of up to 18,000 mechanics this year — about 12% of current staffing levels. It will likely boost pay levels across the industry.

Mindy Pavlonis, associate director of career services for the aeronautics institute, noted that entry-level pay has jumped from about $18 an hour in 2018 to the upper-$20s an hour now.

More financial aid for young people to receive training can help address the worker shortfall, Prentice said, a benefit that some airlines are starting to provide. Myers, the manager at Piedmont, said his company now offers scholarships that pay full tuition to schools like the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. In return, the student must work at Piedmont for two years.

They will even set up new students with a $6,500 tool box, he added.

Erik Hansen, a lobbyist for the U.S. Travel Association, says his group is pushing for more funding for a federal development program that would subsidize aviation maintenance training schools and support more outreach to high schools to promote the industry as a career.

Without more workers, he said, further flight delays will inevitably result.

“You have an airplane that has a mechanical issue, and it needs to be fixed before it’s turned around,” Hansen said. “It takes longer for the mechanics to get to it. There’s going to be a flight delay. So it’s absolutely something we need to address.”

National News

Associated Press

Nichols College president resigns amid allegations of misconduct at Coast Guard Academy

DUDLEY, Mass. (AP) — A former Coast Guard Academy professor whose tenure coincided with a sexual harassment scandal has resigned as president of Nichols College in Massachusetts. Glenn Sulmasy stepped down Tuesday amid an investigation initiated by Nichols after accusations from Sulmasy’s time at the academy came to light. “In light of these reports and […]

4 minutes ago

Associated Press

Google packs more artificial intelligence into new Pixel phones, raises prices for devices by $100

Google on Wednesday unveiled a next-generation Pixel smartphones lineup that will be infused with more with more artificial intelligence tools capable of writing captions about photos that can be altered by the technology, too. The injection of more artificial intelligence, or AI, into Google’s products marks another step in the company’s attempt to bring more […]

7 minutes ago

Associated Press

Who are the 2023 MacArthur ‘genius grant’ fellows?

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 2023 class of fellows, often known as recipients of the “genius grant,” on Wednesday. The 20 fellows will each receive a grant of $800,000 over five years to spend however they want, though they are selected for the exceptional work they’ve already done, their ability […]

23 minutes ago

This undated photo provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation shows 2023 MacArth...

Associated Press

Meet this year’s MacArthur ‘genius grant’ recipients, including a hula master and the poet laureate

A scientist who studies the airborne transmission of diseases, a master hula dancer and cultural preservationist, and the sitting U.S. poet laureate were among the 20 new recipients of the prestigious fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, known as “genius grants,” announced on Wednesday. MacArthur fellows receive a grant of $800,000 […]

23 minutes ago

Associated Press

After judge’s rebuke, Trump returns to court for 3rd day for fraud lawsuit trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Former President Donald Trump returned to his New York civil fraud trial for a third day Wednesday after running afoul of the judge by denigrating a key court staffer in a social media post. Trump, the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential race, is voluntarily taking time out from the campaign […]

2 hours ago

FILE - A man walks through wildfire wreckage in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 11, 2023. Federal authorities...

Associated Press

Cleanup from Maui fires complicated by island’s logistical challenges, cultural significance

Cleanup of areas destroyed in the Maui wildfires could end up being one of the most complex to date, federal officials said, given the island's significant cultural sites, its rich history including a royal residence and possibly remains of people who died in the disaster.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Know any airplane mechanics? A wave of retirements is leaving some US industries desperate to hire