‘I want to help people fly – and keep them safe’

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Pooja UmashankarImage source, University of South Wales
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Pooja Umashankar is studying aircraft maintenance

Student Pooja Umashankar clearly remembers when she first felt the roar of an aircraft taking off.

She was 10 years old and travelling from Sri Lanka to the UK with her family. Through the window near her seat, she could see hundreds of tiny lights on the ground below.

"It's just a piece of metal," she remembers marvelling, "And it's flying now."

Today, a decade and a half later, Miss Umashankar has returned from Sri Lanka to study aircraft maintenance engineering at the University of South Wales. "I knew that I wanted to do something that nobody had ever done in my town," she says.

The aviation industry can't find enough people like Miss Umashankar. For years, airlines and engineering firms have struggled to hire maintenance engineers, and there is now a global shortage numbering in the tens of thousands, external.

This is a huge problem not least because aviation is expected to balloon in the coming decades. Industry estimates suggest, external that roughly 700,000 engineers will have to enter the profession between now and 2040 in order to satisfy demand.

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It's estimated that the aerospace industry needs thousands more engineers

Plus, after Boeing's recent 737 Max 9 door blowout - currently the subject of an investigation - engineers have been in especially high demand to perform increased checks on 737 Max aircraft of various models.

And trade association ADS says there are 10,000 vacancies in total across the UK's aerospace, defence, security and space industries.

Miss Umashankar, who is now nearing the end of her three-year degree, says she wants to be a part of the solution. "What motivates me is to… help people travel," she says. "I want to help them fly - while being safe."

She says she has especially enjoyed working with electronics during her course but was not able to find an on-the-job training placement.

However, Miss Umashankar has now started applying for full-time positions. She hopes to work for an employer that will treat her with respect and provide further training.

Not many of her colleagues will be women, she knows. But that does not deter her: "There's such a shortage of female engineers in this field, I just feel that maybe I should be one of them."

Redressing the severe gender imbalance in the industry could help tackle the shortage, some observers say. In the UK, fewer than 10%, external of aerospace and aviation engineers are women. The numbers are even worse across the Atlantic, says Gail Rouscher, a former aircraft maintenance engineer now at Western Michigan University. Only 2.8% of US aircraft technicians are women.

"I don't think that there are enough women that are involved in the industry to act as mentors," she says.

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The industry is struggling to replace experienced engineers who are retiring

Multiple engineering firms contacted by the BBC declined to specify whether they were short of aviation technicians at present, or to what extent. AAR Corporation, however, says it has raised salaries and launched a programme to help US military veterans join the workforce. More than 60 such candidates have been hired since 2019, the firm notes.

ST Engineering has started a mentorship programme in Singapore and is in talks to set up a training academy in the US. Meanwhile, Lufthansa Technik is working to attract more women into the industry. "Large-scale recruitment of apprentices is still ongoing," a spokeswoman adds.

The current focus on training is significant, says Daniel Olufisan, training director and principal consultant at Wing Engineering, which works in the aviation industry. It is partly down to the fact that fewer aircraft engineers these days are ex-military and, therefore, not as many people with hands-on experience are entering maintenance roles, he suggests.

Another key reason for the shortage is that a high number of engineers in their 60s are now retiring from the profession. Aircraft maintenance is not as glamorous as it once was, suggests Robert Mann, an industry analyst and consultant at RW Mann & Company: "Some of the benefits that then came with working for an airline, flying on staff passes for example, just aren't there anymore."

He stresses that a dearth of engineers is no excuse to cut corners on safety. "This is not a test flying business, this is a consumer service," he says.

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Airbus plans to hire 13,000 staff - many will be engineers

Last year, manufacturer Airbus set a target of hiring 13,000 new employees, many of whom were engineers, though in Airbus's case most were destined to work on new aircraft designs rather than maintenance. A spokeswoman confirms that the company exceeded its target and also succeeded in hiring a large proportion of engineers (25% of the total).

"It does become harder and harder to source talented professional engineers," acknowledges Mark Crompton, global head of employment marketing. He adds that outreach to children of school age could help encourage them to consider the career.

Airbus, like many firms, is increasing apprenticeship and internship positions to help, too. The number of such posts at Airbus climbed by 25% in 2023.

But the industry as a whole is having to face up to the impact aviation is having on climate change and even more engineers are needed to develop cleaner aircraft, explains Mr Crompton.

Nadeem Bandali is an aircraft maintenance engineer at Gatwick Airport. He says that when young people ask him about his job, he shows them videos of the kind of work he does to illustrate how practical it is. "It's purely mechanical, fixing aircraft, troubleshooting aircraft systems," he explains.

As an example, just a few weeks ago, he and his colleagues were tasked with locating a fault in a long sensor wire that runs through the fuselage and wings of an A320. It took a few hours, but they found it and fixed it.

He is aware of the engineer shortage but says, "I don't think safety is an issue at the moment."

Keeping planes in the air, without incident, is a worthwhile endeavour for Miss Umashankar. "Aircraft," she says, "connect the whole world into one."