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Who's Going to Maintain our Simulators?

At the recent FSEMC conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the technology workshop looked at the issues surrounding “Simulator Technician Recruiting, Training and Certification”. The discussion highlighted a number of issues but two particularly resonated with us at Sim Ops.

Both of these centred around the problems of having sufficient numbers of maintenance technicians, i.e. that operators were having problems recruiting sufficient numbers of technicians and they were struggling to retain staff they already had. With the predicted increases in aircraft deliveries and shortages of pilots it seems, to us, inevitable that these problems are not going away in the near future. So what can be done?

Getting new Technicians

First thing that was highlighted at the conference was that simply posting an advertisement along the lines of “experienced simulator technician wanted” was not going to work. Basically, due to the prevailing conditions, this type of advert would at best only lead to re-distributing existing technicians (as someone said, stealing off each other). One way forward for obtaining more senior staff that was proposed was to widen the net and search for personnel from industries with equivalent, or transferable skill sets and cross-train them. Of course the big downside to this approach will be that the people recruited will demand a healthy wage to change.

However the discussions that particularly interested us were those around bringing in newcomers into the industry, our favoured approach.

So how can this be done, what is best practice on this? In short, “get them young” and establish a formal programme. This starts with working with a local educational facility, normally a technical college or equivalent, and establishing a structured programme whereby the recruit has time at the college following an approved academic or vocational course (leading to a nationally recognised certificate or qualification) combined with structured simulator training by the device operator; be that experience working on shift, formal classroom training and On Job Training (OJT). What is important is that this needs to be supervised by a training coordinator/supervisor (this can be a part-time role at smaller operations), be a documented programme and have a good, but not always guaranteed, chance of a full-time position on successful completion.

Of course, to have ongoing programmes in place you need to have a regular turnover and/or additional staffing requirement. Putting a formal programme in place where your total pool of technicians is only five persons is not going to work, however the basic principles still apply if you are only taking on new recruits occasionally.

Retaining the Technicians (or Engineers) you already have

One of the problems highlighted was that the job has changed over time, as we have discussed in past blogs, the advent of FSTDs being delivered without source code and with aircraft OEMs simulation models has meant that the ability to self-modify devices has all but disappeared.

Not only that but with the increased use of Commercial-Off-The-shelf (COTS) electronics and modern PCBs means the need to and ability to repair circuit boards in-house is being lost as the skills to do so on newer devices are just no longer required. This all leads to some more senior staff, particularly engineers with software skills, drifting away.

To illustrate this at the conference one of the Sim Ops partners related his experience from when he was tasked with establishing a new FFS maintenance operation that needed a new team to be recruited and trained. He did all the good things and established a link with a respected local college running courses relevant to simulator technologies and at a graduate recruitment fair employed a team on a one-year training programme supervised by a very experienced field service engineer on site. It worked great, for a couple of years, until the team realised they had learnt all they could, their ability to move onto changing the FFS was not available to them in the country and their aspirations for advancement were not going to be fulfilled anytime soon.

So this leads to an inevitable question, do you need engineers or technicians: graduates or non-graduates? As we discussed above, the job has changed, frankly the team just doesn't get to do engineering much now. So recruiting graduates will mean that within a very short time the graduates will realise they are not utilising their skills and get bored. But even if you don’t fall into the trap of recruiting too many graduates you still need to provide new starters with the opportunity of advancement. Whilst all of us in the industry know that flight simulation is a tremendously fulfilling profession for those at the start of their careers, often with competing offers on the table, they need to see a future, and possibly a future that doesn't involve very disruptive working hours!

But What about Certification?

In short; great idea, probably should be done but will never happen!

So the problems; under whose jurisdiction would it be issued, where would it be recognised, what would it cover? In fact there is an organisation, Flight Simulation Engineer & Technician Association (FSETA) who have tried valiantly to establish just a programme through voluntary accreditation scheme. We are not sure of the current status of the organisation but 15 years or so since its launch we haven't personally seen much progress.

Oh, and as we heard one regulator, who shall remain nameless, quip “be careful what you wish for”.

All that said, we do believe there is some scope for industry initiatives, perhaps an FSEMC youth development programme along the lines that the UK Royal Aeronautical Society runs?

How can Sim Ops help?

All of the Sim Ops partners have had the experience in setting up and running maintenance teams from scratch, indeed we have an ongoing contract at this time for that now. We can support you all the way through the process of setting up a programme and developing the syllabus: from nothing to full autonomy.

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