Talk of jobs — or lack of them — dominates the national conversation right now. But there are places in the economy where willing, qualified workers are hard to come by.
One such place is AAR Aircraft Services Corp., an aircraft maintenance facility in Oklahoma City. There, American capitalism is on display with all its strengths and weaknesses. AAR services jet aircraft, including passenger planes from carriers like Alaska Airlines, Mesa Air and Allegiant Air.
There are hundreds of open positions for skilled blue-collar workers and airplane mechanics — and it's been this way for years. In this economy, how can that be possible?
"These are very technically qualified positions. It isn't something that you can take an individual right out of high school and teach them how to do it," says Anita Brown, head of human resources at AAR's Oklahoma City facility for the past 28 years.
Brown says airplane mechanics at her company start earning between $12 and $15 an hour, while veterans who have their FAA Airframe and Powerplant licenses top out at $28 an hour.
Yet AAR can't keep these positions filled. Brown says the company has at least 600 open jobs. "I know Indianapolis needs about 283 [and] we're just shy of needing 200 people. They also need people in our Miami facility; we're a worldwide organization," she says.
More Thoroughly Trained, More Attractive Elsewhere
The longer mechanics work on airplanes, the more skilled they generally become. The best can do work on a lot of different things extremely well: the fuselage and wing structure — otherwise known as skin and ribs; lavatory plumbing; metal part fabrication; jet engines and electronics. They're like a 6'8" high school senior who can both rebound and knock down the jumper: versatile and valuable.
"[An] aircraft mechanic works on pneumatics, hydraulics, electronics — and when you're talking about electricity, they're also working not only in DC voltage but AC voltage as well — which makes them very attractive to other companies and other industries," says Wayne Jamroz, the facility's general manager.
AAR has learned all too well that sometimes $25 an hour won't cut it. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned off thousands of mechanics who make hazard pay servicing aircraft in a war zone.
Even in Oklahoma, mechanics can make between $5 and $10 more an hour at Tinker Air Force Base and down the road in Tulsa at American Airlines' maintenance facility.
So why doesn't AAR pay its mechanics more? The company says it simply can't afford to; the competition here and abroad is so cutthroat. Jamroz says you'd be surprised to discover the going rate to repair a Boeing 747 these days.
"You take your car into an automotive place and you're paying $75 to $100 an hour. We sell our labor at $48 to $49 an hour," he says.
The Cost To Go Through Training
Inside one of AAR's seven hangers, a Boeing 737 under repair gleams in the halogen light. Sly Hendricks is one of the young mechanics AAR hired after he graduated in sheet metal repair from a local technical school.
"Man, I love it," Hendricks says. "It's a good place to work. They don't just throw you to the wolves. It's a process: I had to go through some levels, some training."
The tuition at the technical school Hendricks graduated from runs about $2,000 total. But AAR says that only prepares those gradates to be trained.
AAR also partners with Tulsa's Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, which provides advanced training and gradates bona fide airplane mechanics. But the tuition is $28,000, a bit of a climb if you're unemployed.
With just his sheet metal training, Hendricks started at AAR making $12 an hour. But after five years he's already up to $21, because five years of working on airplanes has taught him a lot. "Unlike assembly line work, it's a team effort," he says. "Just knowing that I'm able to work on the plane and do the job well is satisfying."
Having turned Hendricks into a talented structural mechanic, this is the time period the company is most likely to lose him to the competition. Plenty of times that competition is not even aviation, but another industry altogether — the natural gas industry is big in Oklahoma and Texas, for example.
Of course, this drives AAR mad with frustration, as if it's some farm team for everyone else's highly trained mechanics.