EVERETT — David Christian and John Kraft are cheerfully training their replacements.
The two men are long-time employees of Aviation Technical Services, one of the largest airplane repair and maintenance firms in North America and Snohomish County’s second-largest aerospace employer.
As instructors for the company’s in-house apprenticeship program, they’re training the next generation of aviation mechanics.
“This is my swan song,” said Christian, whose aviation career spans three decades and includes stints as an aircraft mechanic and quality control manager at the Everett-based repair firm.
The company’s 18-month apprentice program, a full-time position with benefits, prepares graduates to become federally certified aircraft mechanics.
ATS repairs, modifies and overhauls aircraft for military and commercial clients, including Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and FedEx. Its huge, 221,000-square-foot repair hangar at Paine Field can accommodate up to 14 Boeing 737-sized jets.
Three years after its founding, Christian, Kraft and the company leaders say the program is paying off.
Nearly 90 people have graduated into the “mechanic pool” and now work at the company’s Everett facility, said Seth Jacobsen, senior manager for apprenticeship and career development at ATS.
In all, graduates account for some 10% of the company’s 800-plus Everett workforce.
“After three years, it’s great to see some of those folks you trained out there on the floor,” Christian said.
A looming shortage
The COVID-19 crisis, which upended air travel, forced ATS to lay off hundreds of workers at facilities in Everett, Moses Lake, Kansas City, Missouri, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
It was either switch into survival mode or turn off the lights, said Paul Dolan, CEO of ATS.
But with air travelers on the move once more, ATS is again hiring experienced workers and apprentices. Each month it adds about 10 new apprentices.
Even in the best of times, recruiting, hiring and keeping aircraft mechanics on the payroll is a challenge.
Aviation is historically a volatile industry; the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic underscore that fact.
Spooked by the economic downturn, some aircraft mechanics who were laid off or furloughed found jobs in other industries, Dolan said. At this point, “they’ll probably never come back.”
“Retention is enormously important to us,” Dolan said. “Quite frankly, it determines whether or not we have a future.”
Older aircraft mechanics are nearing the day when they can stow their tools. One-third of the current aviation repair workforce is at or near retirement age, according to management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
Despite recent events, demand for air travel and air freight services is expected to grow.
ATS’s answer to the looming shortage “is to train our own,” Dolan said.
Juan Marquez, 28, moved 1,500 miles this summer to participate in the ATS apprenticeship program. Two years ago, he was hired by a New Mexico company to repair components for small aircraft. There he caught the aviation bug and gained an appreciation of airplane mechanics and design.
“I was kind of lost before I got that job,” said Marquez, who’d previously held jobs in construction. “I really started liking the work and wanted to advance further.”
He found the ATS program through an online search and applied. Interviews with ATS officials were conducted via video chat. “I didn’t actually see the facility until I got here,” Marquez said.
On a recent afternoon, Marquez sat with eight other apprentices inside an ATS classroom at a World War II-era hangar at Paine Field. After two weeks of classroom instruction, each apprentice will be assigned to a hangar crew and paired with a lead mechanic, responsible “for keeping an eye on them,” Jacobsen said.
Their first assignments are usually simple tasks, such as removing the seats and overhead bins in an airplane so it can be inspected or refurbished. As they progress through the 18-month program, the scope and detail of their duties expand, Jacobsen said.
ATS declined to provide pay information for mechanics and apprentices, but according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for aircraft mechanics and technicians is about $67,000. ZipRecruiter, an online job board, reports that aircraft mechanics earn, on average, $51,000 or more a year.
Five years, ago, Matt Yerbic, the company’s former CEO, pushed ATS to develop its own academy, Jacobsen said. Yerbic stepped aside in June after 14 years to lead the company’s board of directors.
More than a dozen employees were tapped to help design the program.
They began by asking everyone — top executives, supervisors and aircraft mechanics: “What does an untrained, unskilled person need to know to become an aircraft mechanic?” Jacobsen said.
The responses varied but nearly everyone agreed on three things: good attendance, good communication skills and a commitment to safety.
In 2019, the Matt Yerbic Apprenticeship Program was launched.
Before the program’s debut, entry-level hires were given basic training and given their work assignment. Attrition was high, Jacobsen said.
“The hangar is like an ocean. It’s a big environment with several hundred mechanics — it’s a lot to take in,” Jacobsen said. “We lost a lot of people.”
Today, apprentices are paired with a mechanic. Their on-the-job training is guided by a set curriculum. The program’s instructors check in with “every apprentice, every week” to track their progress, Jacobsen said.
After completing the program, they automatically become a mechanic and receive a pay raise. Graduates are eligible to obtain aircraft mechanic certification through the Federal Aviation Administration, another step up. ATS pays the FAA exam fees.
”We can’t make them successful, but we can pave the way.” Jacobsen said.
Apprenticeships on the rise
Roughly a third of the nation’s 26,000 apprenticeship programs are run solely by employers like ATS, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In the past decade, across all U.S. industries, the number of apprentices has skyrocketed. In 2020, there were 636,000 apprentices, up from 388,000 in 2010, a 64% hike, according to the Labor Department.
Washington is home to 229 apprenticeship programs, including 41 programs that debuted in 2020. In all, they enrolled 4,500 new apprentices last year.
Stan Ryakhovskiy, 18, a graduate of Mariner High School, learned about the ATS program while enrolled in an aerospace class at Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center during his junior year. “I love working with my hands,” said Ryakhovskiy, a backyard mechanic who’s been fixing cars and motorcycles since he was a young teen.
Carsen Giaudrone, 18, also arrived at the program via the Sno-Isle pipeline. “I’ve wanted to work on airplanes ever since I took an aerospace manufacturing class,” Giaudrone said. “My instructor advised me to apply here,” said Giaudrone, eager to “get on the floor as soon as possible.”
But ATS — and the aviation industry as a whole — hasn’t yet found a reliable applicant pipeline for as many women or people of color as it would like, Jacobsen said.
Women make up just 12 percent of aviation and engineering workers and only 10% of aviation mechanics are people of color, according to a 2020 study by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
ATS officials hope a recent tweak to their in-house academy will add diversity.
The company altered its recruiting process, placing a greater emphasis on applicants with a background in customer service or communication, the so-called soft skills.
The change means that a retail clerk, a barista or hairdresser with an interest in aviation may be right for the apprenticeship program, Jacobsen said.
“We can teach them the technical skills,” Jacobsen said.
One benefit they’ve already seen: Recruiting more applicants with soft skills has cut the program’s attrition rate from 30% to 15%, Jacobsen said.
Still, not everyone will complete the training.
Aircraft repair and the requisite documentation is exacting. For new hires and apprentices used to tinkering, the aviation repair business may not be a fit.
“This is a highly regulated industry that demands precision,” instructor Christian said. “Everything you touch on an airplane, every nut and bolt has a piece of paper telling you how to install or remove it,” Christian said.
Some leave because they don’t like the evening or night-time schedule. “It’s shift work,” instructor Kraft said.
Others can’t meet the company standards. “You can be someone with great technical skills, but if you don’t show up on time, that’s a problem,” Jacobsen said.
After three years, the apprenticeship academy is on a steady flight path, Jacobsen said. “It’s taken time to get here. It’s been a long, expensive, labor-intensive process,” he said.
Fresh out of high school, Sander Sam thinks the ATS program is a pretty sweet deal.
“I’ve got a full-time job. I’m getting paid,” said the 18- year-old. “You get trained in 18 months to two years to be an aircraft mechanic and you’re not forking over tuition.”
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods