The Middle East's commercial aircraft fleet is set to double in the next decade, creating an urgent need to train maintenance technicians - particularly for local MRO providers seeking to attract business from other regions.
"Little time is required to buy aircraft, but a lot is required to build MRO facilities and train staff," says Egyptair Maintenance & Engineering chairman and chief executive Abd El Azis Fadel. "Even more time is required to build experience. So expansion is a challenge."
Assuming an average of 17-20 technicians per aircraft, Fadel estimates that no less than 25,000 certificated mechanics, technicians and engineers will be needed in the Middle East over the next five years. Egyptair Maintenance & Engineering, which has a current workforce of about 5,000, plans to take on at least 1,000 trainees over that period.
Last year, the MRO provider extended its Cairo training centre, which is used to instruct flight and cabin crew as well as ground-handling and maintenance staff. In the past, the facility has catered for external customers from Libya, Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as Europe. However, about 90% of the trainees will work within the Egyptair group, with third parties accounting for just 10%. "Hopefully this will grow," says Fadel.
His plan is for Egyptair to qualify technicians beyond its own needs and contract them out to other MRO firms in the Middle East.
Egyptair hopes to contract out technicians to Middle Eastern MROs
High staff turnover is a bugbear for Middle Eastern maintenance providers. The reasons are twofold. Many technicians are expatriates who may want to return home or move on after a time. The other driver of turnover is remuneration disparities, with higher rates of pay prevailing in the United Arab Emirates.
Fadel says the "bleeding of skilful staff", who leave to work in the Gulf countries, is a challenge for Egyptair M&E.
This is echoed by Mohamad Yassine Sabbagh, executive director of Beirut-based Mideast Aircraft Services (Masco), who confirms: "We have seen a surge of staff to the Gulf area." The Lebanese MRO company - affiliated to Middle East Airlines - is a good payer by national standards, but salary levels for aircraft technicians can be three to six times higher in the Gulf area, says Sabbagh.
Every year, MASCO takes on 15-20 trainees, from vocational secondary schools or universities, for aircraft maintenance apprenticeships run by sister company MEA Technical Training in a joint venture with UK-based Capital Aviation. This intake is set to grow, but MASCO does not employ expatriates.
Middle East Airlines (MEA) is building a training centre for pilots and cabin crew, as well as for maintenance, operations, commercial and other support personnel. The facility will have flight and cabin simulators, and be "a mega-project for the size of the country", says Sabbagh. Ground has been broken, and the centre is due to begin operating in 2012.
Dubai-based Emirates Engineering has about 3,800 employees, of whom local nationals comprise 15-20%, with the rest expatriates. The company has always given priority to local recruits to its apprenticeships, but has also run two expatriate programmes over the past four years, says Iain Lachlan, its senior vice-president of aircraft maintenance.
Emirates Engineering plans to take on 50 apprentices this year. Further recruits will come from the independently run Emirates Aviation College and other training organisations. The company's workforce will grow by about 160 over the next two years, Lachlan predicts. This figure includes unlicensed mechanics, support staff and qualified employees joining from other MRO companies.
But it is not easy to encourage young people to take up a career in aircraft maintenance. "To become a fully qualified engineer, it takes six to seven years," says Lachlan. Given competition from other industries, it is hard to attract applicants who are willing to embark on intensive training to build specialist knowledge and continuously develop their skills by gaining new type ratings, completing refresher courses or adapting to new regulations.
Finding qualified staff was particularly hard in the buoyant market before the downturn. Experienced applicants could demand generous packages, and companies needed to offer attractive staff development options to retain staff. There is still a measure of staff turnover today, but it is not large, says Lachlan. "I see an increase of people coming in from external [companies], but not that much mobility out."
At Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT), just 5% of staff is accounted for by UAE nationals - but this will rise to 30% by 2013, says chief executive Jeremy Chan.
The number of training days at ADAT has risen by 70% over the past five years, although ADAT Technical Training concentrates mainly on type rating training for existing staff, with ab initio instruction left to external organisations, such as the Al Ain International Aviation Academy. The company has a sponsorship programme for UAE national job starters.
Acknowledging staff movement at ADAT, Chan admits it is crucial to keep a core group within the company to maintain expertise.
At a macro level, the increasing focus on proximate talent pools among Middle Eastern MRO providers represents not just national aspirations or a need to scale in line with fleet growth, but also the cold financial logic of keeping labour costs down.