Aviation Safety under threat from Engineer shortage
20th January 2015
A shortage of engineers and other skilled personnel is an imminent threat to British military aviation safety, according to a high-ranking safety official.
When Military Aviation Authority (MAA) boss Air Marshal Dick Garwood informed the defense secretary in his report for the year to Aug. 24 that he could give only "limited assurance" of air safety, the cause was "mainly due to the significant and widespread shortage of suitably qualified experienced personnel," such as engineers, aircrew and air traffic managers.
That doesn't mean military aviation here is unsafe. Garwood reported a historically low accident rate for the 12 months. But it does mean that items like dealing with routine air worthiness issues are not being addressed.
The problem's not new. The MAA has been reporting shortages of skilled civil and military personnel for much of its four-year history.
The shortages, particularly of engineers and others at the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) arm of the Defence Ministry, is not an isolated issue affecting only military aviation safety.
Garwood's MAA report said the Defence Board, the highest committee in the MoD led by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, has identified "achieving and sustaining manpower numbers and skills as the greatest single challenge currently facing the department."
As of September 2014, the MoD was advertising 102 program and project management posts and 70 engineering and science posts.
"The problem is most acute in posts relating to aircraft engineering," an MoD spokesman said.
DE&S has filled some of the gaps in its ranks.
Among a number of recent initiatives were recruitment campaigns that netted 32 new staff, while efforts are being made to better retain the 300 existing airworthiness safety critical staff with a new reward and recognition plan.
Under new salary freedoms being implemented at DE&S, the organization is better placed to compete for staff with industry, the spokesman said.
Finding sufficient recruits for the British Army and its expanding reserve forces is likely the biggest worry for the Defence Board, but attracting and retaining engineers, technicians and others to operate and support the military's increasingly exotic equipment is also a major headache.
Among the armed services, the problem is most acute in the Royal Navy. It has had to resort to borrowing US Coast Guard maritime engineers to fill skill gaps on its Type 23 frigate fleet and elsewhere.
"A trial group of four US Coast Guard senior rate engineering technicians are close to completing a six-month period of Royal Navy familiarization training and will be joining Type 23 frigates in complement marine engineering section head billets for two-year sea assignments over the next few weeks," a Navy spokesman said.
"Following the success of the trial, it is intended that a further 16 will arrive in the UK in July 2015 and will be ready to go to sea in January 2016. There will be a final tranche of 16 arriving in July 16,"he said
The Navy is also looking to temporarily stiffen the engineering ranks with other foreign recruits, as well as using other solutions to include financial incentives for chief petty officer technicians and others.
"We are also looking to similar initiatives with other navies.Numbers involved in all these initiatives would be low, amounting to a combined total of no more than 20," the spokesman said.
A source close to the Navy said one idea under consideration is to encourage engineers from industry to join the service in a sideways entry set-up that would see them come onboard, after training, at a rank commensurate with their experience.
Like the military, industry is also threatened by the scarcity of engineers and technicians emerging from Britain's universities and elsewhere.
A report last week from the EngineeringUK lobby group illustrated the scale of the problem.
"Engineering companies will need 182,000 people a year with engineering skills in the decade to 2022, but there is a current annual shortfall of 55,000 skilled workers," it said.
Jon Louth, director of the Defence, Industries and Society program at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said part of any solution to the skills gap is in the hands of the government.
"It's an important part of the skills agenda that there is a real commitment to future programs and technology by the MoD at the requirement stage, otherwise it's difficult to see how the key skills and competencies industry requires are going to be maintained," Louth said.
But, he added, the problem could go further than that.
"We might see industry and military fighting over a diminishing pool of skills. It could be a double whammy as these days 50 percent of defense frontline capabilities reside in the private sector," he said.
"In Afghanistan there was a fair possibility you would see an engineer in company overalls rather than a uniform, so we need skills in both the military and industry base to undertake the operations the government requires," Louth said. "If the two parts of the force are fighting for rare skills, we have a real concern."
One leading defense industry executive here, who asked not to be named, said finding recruits with the right skills and experience is among the top two or three challenges facing his company.
"Many companies are investing in trying to encourage children into engineering careers, but this will take at least a generation to fix," he said. "Unless as an industry we can find a solution to this problem, it will eventually impact on our ability to grow the business here."
Nuclear submarine building and support and cybersecurity were among the industry pinch points, he said.
The threat to industry health was borne out by work conducted by the trade lobby group ADS.
"There is clearly a need for a focus on boosting engineering skills. Research undertaken last year by ADS indicated one in five defense companies were concerned about accessing the necessary research and development skills," an ADS spokeswoman said. "Similarly, one in four security organizations were concerned as to how they would meet domestic and international demand with the current UK skillset."
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