The first ever in-depth study of the current and future needs of Australia's aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul sector is under way.

The $500,000, three year study, "The Future of Aircraft Maintenance in Australia: Aviation Safety, Workforce Capability and Industry Development", is being done by the University of NSW's Industrial Relations Research Centre.

It is being funded by a $226,000 Australian Research Council grant, backed with matching monetary and other contributions from 11 other industry groups including unions, employer groups and skills organisations.

The study has its genesis in concerns raised in 2006-07 by the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association, which represents about 6800 licensed engineers, about offshoring of work.

These worries included a downwards spiral in capabilities pushed by a looming shortfall in skilled workers, which might accelerate offshoring, with any safety implications.

It was also concerned by national strategic, as well as economic, consequences if Australia lost heavy aircraft maintenance and workplace capabilities.

Further, it was concerned about implications of the restructuring of aviation maintenance licences (which come into effect on July 27) along with reforms to training and assessment.

AN ALEA spokesman, Steve Re, said it was quickly found that despite passionate views held in the debates about such matters, dispassionate evidence was hard to find.

There was a need for research to provide evidence-based policy: "There was no use going to talk to politicians if you had no evidence," Re said. "They want to see the numbers."

"We thought there was a LAME shortage, difficulties skilling facilities, more work was going offshore, more was being outsourced and that all of it would be promoting a continuously downward spiral of decay.

"We wanted to be able to give politicians data.

"We went to the University of NSW, which told us that the sought data did not exist in any accessible way. It was siloed, and nobody had it all."

A group of people became interested had to be not overly weighted towards unions or employers. It had to be impartial. The membership includes the Aviation Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Business Association (AMROBA); Australian Aerospace; unions the ALAEA, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the
Flights Attendants Association of Australia and the Transport Workers Union; and Manufacturing Skills Australia and TAFE NSW.

In addition, because of its criticality in regard to future planning of skilled labour supply and demand and training, it is expected that data sourced from CASA will include demographics of licence holders, their types of licences, fleet location, matching of fleet and resources, and ageing fleet.

The research team will include Professors Michael Quinlan (occupation health and safety), Ann Williamson (aviation safety) and Garry Barrett (econometrics – labour market economics); Associate Professors Ian Hampson and Anne Junor (skill, work organisation, skills policy and industry policy; and Drs Eric van Voorthuysen (engineering) and Sarah Gregson (survey methodology and history).

Their work will be supported by reference and working groups.

Initial questions for the study include:

1. Why do aircraft engineers leave the industry?

2. Do they return?

3. What entices them to remain in their careers?

a. Job satisfaction (wages, workplace conditions, regulatory and licence

b. Role of qualifications in transferring to adjacent occupations

c. Effect of qualifications and career paths in retention in present jobs

It is expected that the study's findings will be revealed at a public forum to be held in 2013.

The ALAEA's Steve Re said an outcome it would obviously prefer from the study is that there is evidence that Australia can maintain a viable heavy aircraft maintenance industry.

"We do well. We know Qantas at Tullamarine can put out a Boeing 737 after full heavy maintenance 3-4 works ahead of an Asian MRO competitor," he said.

"The cost might be higher, but we would contend the quality is higher and the aircraft goes back into the fleet, and earning revenue, much quicker.

"Also, we understand that HAESL (Hong Kong Aero Engine Services Limited) and SAESL (Singapore Aero Engine Services Private Limited) are running at capacity, so can Australian airlines afford to send major engines work to Singapore, where they will go in a queue?

(Both companies, each partly owned by Rolls-Royce, list Qantas as a customer).

"An engine shop was closed here about 18 months ago and about 40 blokes moved to other places, with the result that engine mods can't be made here anymore. Now the airline wants them moved back there. That's not good management."

The Association is also interested in finding whether experienced people working in other skilled industries, such as automotive, might be able to be quickly retrained and redeployed to aviation in times of short or long term fall offs in demand for their employers.

It is also interested in canvassing whether the industry as a whole might be interested in using skilled person transfers when one airline might have less demand than another, "jointly managing overflows and basically having a Buy Australian first policy," Re said.

"If Qantas at Tullamarine has more work than it can handle, why should it not consider having it done next door at John Holland, rather than send it overseas, and vice versa?

"At least from our perspective we think the study should not only be looking at the economic effects of the industry and all they entail – and that is important – but also at the strategic and community effects."

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