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Charting a Course Through Supply Chain and Labor Shortages in the Aerospace Sector

2024-02-12 / 4 min
Sshrinking labor force

The aerospace sector, once a symbol of human ambition and innovation, finds itself caught in a crosswind of opportunity and challenge. Surging demand for air travel and promising technological advancements implies exciting new horizons, but the industry is buffeted by headwinds in the form of disrupted supply chains and a shrinking labor force. These challenges threaten to ground progress and clip the wings of innovation, yet the aviation sector is completely aware of struggles it is facing and ready to address them, the only question being… how?

At the root of the current industry’s turmoil lie two interconnected issues: supply chain disruptions and a labor force shortage. The pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of complex, globalized supply chains, leaving the industry susceptible to material shortages, logistical bottlenecks, and geopolitical tensions. These factors disrupt the flow of critical components, causing delays in production and deliveries, and ultimately hindering the industry’s ability to meet the rising demand.

Soaring demand is painting a bright future for the aerospace industry, with passenger air traffic projected to grow at a steady 4.1% annually and aircraft deliveries expected to surpass 43,000 in the next 15 years. However, a dark cloud looms on the horizon in the form of a shrinking labor force. Over 30% of the current workforce is nearing retirement, creating a talent gap of 80,000 technicians needed annually just to keep pace. This deficit isn’t limited to general numbers; specific roles like aircraft mechanics, avionics technicians, and manufacturing engineers face critical shortages, threatening production delays, increased costs, and even safety concerns.

Building a Resilient Supply Chain

The impact is already being felt, with airlines losing billions due to delivery delays and industry estimates putting the cost of the technician shortage alone at $20 billion annually. But it’s not just about numbers on a spreadsheet. A dwindling pool of skilled professionals is more than just an obvious threat as it could stifle further progress, hindering the development of next-generation technologies that make air travel more accessible and sustainable.

Recognizing this, major players like Airbus and Boeing are actively investing in STEM education programs to spark interest in younger generations, while apprenticeship programs offer valuable hands-on experience and a direct pathway into the industry, demonstrating, how obvious it is that the sector should chart a new course that addresses both supply chain and shrinking labor force challenges head-on.

“First and foremost, the industry needs to continuously work towards building a more resilient supply chain. – says Toma Matutyte, the CEO of online aviation marketplace Locatory.com. – ‘This can be achieved by diversifying its supplier base, reducing reliance on any single source for critical components. Investing in local manufacturing, where feasible, can also shorten lead times and mitigate the impact of global disruptions. Additionally, embracing technologies, especially digital ones, such as predictive analytics can help anticipate and address potential supply chain issues before they cause delays. Collaboration with suppliers, fostering open communication and shared problem-solving, can further strengthen the supply chain ecosystem.”

Investing in the Future: Cultivating a New Generation of Aerospace Professionals

Commercial airplane operators, spanning from small-scale carriers to major airlines, are eager to expand their capacity in response to the escalating demand for air travel. Yet virtually every manufacturer grapple with analogous supply chain issues, commencing with workforce shortages and extending to the extent of logistics, which remains far from optimal.

Here arises a major issue is a workforce shortage which extends far beyond airline personnel and their operations. It is worth noting that all the layoffs undertaken during the first years of the pandemic aren’t the sole contributing factor to the ongoing lack of such needed personnel and shrinking labor force.

Major employers, including airlines and MRO service providers, are diligently working to bring their professionals back into the workforce. However, the issue extends beyond the pandemic’s immediate impact. While the shortage of pilots and cabin crew has been a long-standing challenge, it is heartening to see that airlines and other aircraft operators are becoming increasingly innovative in their efforts to attract more professionals.

Nonetheless, another pressing concern emerges in the aviation industry, particularly regarding the shortage of airplane maintenance personnel, which is currently on the rise. This shortage can be attributed to a variety of factors, one of which is the aging global population. As we progress towards 2027, a substantial number of maintenance technicians will become eligible for retirement, with more and more baby boomers reaching their 60s.

This looming retirement wave presents a significant challenge for the aviation sector. These experienced maintenance professionals possess a wealth of knowledge and skills that are invaluable for ensuring the safe operation of aircraft. As they exit the workforce, there is a growing need to train and recruit a new generation of technicians to fill their roles. This demand for skilled maintenance personnel is exacerbated by the increasing complexity of modern aircraft, which require specialized knowledge and training.

Embracing Innovation

Addressing the the current shortage requires a multi-pronged approach. Making the industry more attractive to younger generations is crucial. Targeted education programs that introduce students to the exciting world of aerospace at an early age can spark interest and ignite passion. Apprenticeship programs provide valuable hands-on experience and a clear pathway into the industry. Additionally, offering competitive compensation packages and fostering a positive work environment will make the industry more appealing to potential recruits.

Upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce is equally important. Providing opportunities for continuous learning and development ensures that employees have the skills and knowledge needed to adapt to evolving technologies and industry demands.

Technological innovation holds immense potential to address both supply chain and labor force challenges. Automation and robotics can alleviate labor shortages in specific areas, particularly repetitive tasks, freeing up valuable human resources for more complex endeavors. As an example, Airbus’ use of robots for tasks like wing assembly, is already resulting in a 30% decrease in production time, according to the manufacturer.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, promises on-demand part production, potentially reducing reliance on complex and often vulnerable supply chains. For instance, GE Aviation uses 3D printing to produce complex engine parts, reducing lead times by up to 50% and minimizing reliance on traditional supply chains.

Collaboration to Find Strength in Unity

No single entity can weather these storms alone. Industry-wide collaboration is key to fostering knowledge sharing, joint research efforts, and standardization initiatives. By working together, stakeholders across the aerospace ecosystem can develop more efficient and resilient solutions that benefit the industry as a whole. Government support, in the form of funding and incentives, for example, in developing relevant educational facilities, can further hasten these collaborative efforts and provide much-needed tailwinds for the industry’s journey.

By tackling these challenges head-on, the aerospace industry can emerge from this turbulence stronger than ever. A focus on supply chain diversification, talent development, technological innovation, and industry collaboration will ensure that the skies remain open for continued growth, exploration, and the pursuit of ever-greater human ambition. So, while the current climate may be turbulent, the future of the aerospace industry remains bright, promising exciting new frontiers and pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible.

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