Blue Sky Thinking
02 Nov 2011
The challenges facing the airline industry have never been tougher. Justin Cunningham talks to Phil Maher, director of engineering at Virgin Atlantic, about how his team are investing in the future skills of the company.
Operating in one of the most competitive sectors in the world, the engineering pressures and responsibilities on large airlines are unparalleled. Extraordinary care must be taken to manage and control maintenance processes, to ensure operational efficiency and, of course, make sure safety becomes an intrinsic part of the organisation. So what goes in to training the engineers that keep Virgin's fleet of aircraft flying?
Virgin Atlantic, like much of the engineering industry, wholeheartedly believes in its apprenticeship programme, both as a training mechanism, but also to keep its business full of the calibre of people who will keep it successful, going forward.
The company's engineering department consists of more than 850 staff, more or less spread in a 50/50 split between two main bases at London's Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and stations throughout the world where it provides maintenance support to other operators. However, due to an extremely low attrition rate of its engineers – just 1.6% - it takes on just 12 to 20 apprentices a year that are absorbed into its production workforce.
"The scheme starts with a combination of classroom-based training and basic skills training," says Phil Maher, director of engineering at Virgin Atlantic. "This then goes into more advanced technologies and very key technical skills, before finally moving into work experience in a hanger, filling in a personal experience logbook and actively working across a number of different production environments.
"The apprentices then finally pass out with a minimum of an A-licence and we have actually had our engineers passing out with B-licences. They then go out to the hangers and get production approval."
Virgin runs its apprenticeship scheme over a three-year period where apprentices can expect to get paid in the region of £12,000 for training on the mechanical systems and avionics of today's aircraft fleet. The training is a combination of work in the hangers, which is hands on and very practically focused, to classroom-based work. But the overall education is perhaps more broad than just allowing young people to acquire technical skills; it gives them 'soft skills', confidence, team-working and leadership that are so important to a company's long-term success in the marketplace.
As you might expect, competition for its apprenticeships is fierce, with some 500 applications received annually to fill its intake. So what makes an ideal candidate? "We look for a balance," says Maher. "Our people need a balance of academic skills with the hands-on skills that are required to be an engineer. That balance is really crucial. We want people that can interpret very detailed and complex data, and use that in maintenance practices. At the same time, we want people that can get their hands dirty and use spanners and change over parts and components.
"Interpretation of the diagnostic tools, effective use of the OEM data, following and enforcing that rigorously is something we drive into the engineers at a very early stage. We need people to use the data, the tools and the analysis for the diagnostics, and then translate that into an action for the aircraft."
There is a continuing evolution in aircraft maintenance, as software, sensors and diagnostic equipment continue to play a larger and larger role. Crucially, managing that technology and how engineers interface with it is critical, going forward. Equipment such as portable laptops, onboard diagnostics, in-flight diagnostics, data and software management: these will all become issues and hold significant challenges for the future.
"And that isn't to say they are not there today, but there will be a step shift," adds Maher. "Younger engineer are likely to be more au fait with the IT aspect of these technologies, and how software might be integrated into a maintenance and engineering role, but actually that raises a bigger question for us and probably for wider industry: managing the cultural impacts of what is happening with commercial technology and the impact that has on the thinking of an engineer."
Commercial technology innovations and the enablement of software, the internet, wireless laptops and iPads are things that most apprentices would have grown up with. For many, they would never have known a world without the internet. However, more experienced engineers may be less familiar with these, which creates a challenge.
"Younger engineers are far more familiar with that kind of technology," says Maher. "And you can make a logical leap that their need for almost instant answers and instant results needs to be tempered. So we need to think about how we manage the kind of cultural impacts of what is happening with commercial technology and how that impacts the thinking of an engineer, and how we can drive some really clear systemic thinking into our engineering staff.
"So when we look at the technology impacts, we are not just looking specifically at training and management of technology, but the changes to how an engineer's behaviour needs to be managed as part of the process. It's a question for us, the whole behaviour management side of it; we need to start thinking about how we develop leadership skills at an apprentice level."
Both Virgin Atlantic and Mayer are passionate about apprenticeships, and are keen to expand upon the success of its programme to wider industry. "We only have a need for a maximum of maybe 20 apprentices ourselves, but, once you have the facilities and training structure in place, it is easy to scale up to more people. In an ideal world, we would be able to train more people and turn them back in to industry.
"But to do that we seek, and hope to get, government support or some form of incentive for us as a business to take on that challenge. That is something we are going to explore, but we are not quite there yet. I'd be really keen to try to get that up and going."
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd
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