The Aircraft Maintenance Technician: Skilled or Unskilled?
By Justin Madden, Legislative Affairs Director
There is a misleading issue that permeates our craft and threatens to keep the focus away from moving forward if not addressed properly. Why isn’t the Aircraft Maintenance Technician (AMT) classified as skilled labor, and is instead classified as semi-skilled, or worse yet, unskilled labor? What, if anything, can be done about it? These questions are consistently brought up by our members, and are a battle cry by some who honorably seek professional recognition for the craft. Recently, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) was made aware of an effort on Facebook to change this incorrect designation. As the union who faithfully promotes and represents the AMT, AMFA is keenly aware that our technicians work on highly complex aircraft and associated systems, requiring education, training, and government certification just to get started in the craft. The investment in these prerequisites, not to mention tools and other essential items, is easily tens of thousands of dollars or more. To be considered anything but skilled labor is demeaning to the craft and a slap in the face to the skilled professionals who comprise it, and regardless of the issue, AMFA will never stand idly by when our significance is challenged.
Fortunately, this perceived insult is a misconception. Although there are issues with the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) classification of our craft as mentioned later in this article, the short answer to the first question posed above is that the AMT is considered “skilled,” just in a convoluted way. The DOL no longer maintains a skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled classification title for each occupation, which according to John Goglia, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Member and AMT, hasn’t happened “since the 80’s” (Goglia). In its place, and as “a means of stratifying occupations in terms of their level of required vocational preparation,” the DOL has substituted a Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) score for each occupation (onetonline.org). This SVP essentially translates to the time it takes for the average person in the occupation to “learn the techniques, acquire the information, and develop the facility needed for average performance of a job” (ssa.gov). According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), one can gain SVP “in a school, military, institutional or vocational environment through such settings as: vocational training, apprenticeship training, in plant training, on-the-job training, and essential experience in other jobs” (ssa.gov).
Exploring SVP further, we find that each listed occupation is given a number on a scale of 1-9, with one requiring the least amount of preparation time (think refuse and recyclable materials collector), and 9 requiring over ten years to acquire the skillset necessary to perform the job duties (think surgeon). This scale can be further broken up into five zones based on a mean SVP: Job Zone 1=<4; Job Zone 2=>4–<6; Job Zone 3=>6–<7; Job Zone 4=>7–<8; and Job Zone 5=>8 (Oswald et al. 15-16).
This is where it gets a little tricky. Although the DOL no longer classifies occupations with a skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled title, the SVP score could impact you and directly correlates to classifications used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) when making disability determinations. Their classifications are -- you guessed it-- skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled. An SVP score of 1-2 falls into the unskilled category, 3-4 indicates semi-skilled work, while a SVP score of 5-9 means that the job is considered skilled (Laurence).
So where do AMT’s fall? According to Occupational Information Network (O*NET) the majority of our craft is designated in Job Zone 3 with a SVP range of 6-<7, placing us firmly in the highest designation of “skilled” work (onetonline.org). The SSA defines this as work that “requires high levels of judgment and adaptability, involves setting realistic goals or making plans independently, requires understanding, carrying out, remembering complex instructions, and often encompasses abstract ideas and problem solving” (ssa.gov). In addition to achieving the highest designation, our craft finds its SVP score among other career fields such as dental hygienists and nurses, while ranked with a higher SVP than many other careers, such as law enforcement (Oswald et al. 13-15).
Now that we can move on from the fallacy that the AMT is considered “unskilled” labor, we should take a closer look at how the DOL classification of our craft does hurt us, and answer the second question that was posed at the beginning of the article: “What, if anything, can be done about it?”
AMT’s are classified into four groups, which start from broad to narrow. The “Major Group” is 49-0000: Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations. The “Minor Group” is 49-3000: Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers. Dialing in further is the term “Broad Occupation” 49-3010: Aircraft Mechanics and Service Technicians, and finally, the “Detailed Occupation” 49-3011: Aircraft Mechanics and Service Technicians. There is also Avionics Technicians who fall under a different “Minor Group” 49-2000: Electrical and Electronic Equipment Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers, “Broad Occupation” 49-2090 Miscellaneous Electrical and Electronic Equipment Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers, and a separate “Detailed Occupation” 49-2091: Avionics Technicians (“Comments for the 2018 SOC Revision” 2).
The Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) contends that because “nearly all aviation maintenance professionals fall under not only the same major group, but the same minor group, broad group, and detailed occupation,” the classifications as they exist “do not accurately reflect the occupational opportunities or responsibilities within aviation maintenance.” Furthermore, ATEC indicates that the inaccuracy “has created a statistical void in the industry, leading to misinformation on the current state of employment and an inability to forecast future needs” (“Comments for the 2018 SOC Revision” 2-3). They are suggesting changes to the system that would distinctly separate the certified AMT from the uncertified technician amongst other changes.
Why should we even care? Well, the government produces internal studies that are utilized by lawmakers to make decisions. One such recent study indicated that, in the face of evidence to the contrary, there was little evidence to support a shortage of AMTs (GAO 8). As a matter of fact, and according to the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook on their website, the projected need for AMTs over the period 2014-2024 is only one percent, or 1,600 AMTs (bls.gov), whereas an independent study by Boeing indicated the need for 127,000 technicians over the next 20 years (2016-2036) in the US alone (“2016 Pilot & Technician Outlook” 8). The disparity is still enormous, and keeping in mind that the time periods are not an exact match, can in part be attributed to the lumping in of all service technicians to our occupation.
AMFA is concerned that the impending shortage of AMTs is being concealed because of improper statistics based on a flawed classification system, and that this failure could cause undue harm to the craft, such as effectively removing any leverage a shortage creates towards raising the standard of wages, benefits, and overall career potential. Accordingly, what can we do about it? To address this properly, AMFA supports ATEC’s efforts to change the classification via a revision in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), and will be working with them to do so. Furthermore, AMFA supports in principle any legitimate and strategic effort to raise the standing of our craft, and toils every day to accomplish just that at both the government and industry levels.
Finally, we urge every technician to become more concerned with our craft, as well as to continue acting in a professional manner on a daily basis. The aircraft maintenance landscape is ever changing, and along with upcoming opportunities to raise our profile and elevate the craft, there will also be threats to our respective livelihoods that we will have to overcome. There are important discussions about our craft occurring every day at the highest levels of industry and government. For example, the AMT testing process is currently being revised, and looking forward, it is not out of the realm of possibility to believe that our licensing standards will be scrutinized. We need your help ensuring that AMFA is at the table when things like this are determined, as we continue to represent the collective and unadulterated voice of aircraft maintenance labor. Without us, you will be left with government regulators and industry insiders alone determining your future. Demand that AMFA be seated at the table so that you have a voice!