Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series to mark Women’s History Month: March 1: Pioneers of Women’s Aviation | March 2: Carole Hopson | March 4: Martha King | March 8: Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance | March 11: The Air Race Classic | March 15: Sisters of the Skies | March 18: Women in Aviation Conference | March 22: Women In Aviation: The Numbers | March 22: The first graduating class of Air Force female pilots. | March 25: Bonny Simi of Joby Aviation | March 29: Top Female Difference Makers in Aviation
When Stacey Rudser graduated high school, she didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career. She waited tables and worked in customer service for a couple of years. Realizing time was slipping past and she needed to “grow up and do something,” Rudser found herself searching the internet for how to be an aircraft mechanic.
Seeds planted by her Junior ROTC commander, who had served as an aircraft maintenance officer in the Air Force, and her time tinkering with a ’65 Mustang that her grandfather restored took root and she enrolled in airframe and powerplant (A&P) school.
“I felt like maintenance was attainable. I knew it was a lot of reading, paperwork, and critical thinking, and those were all things that I really enjoyed. And then, getting to hit airplanes with hammers, who wants to say no to that? It’s great fun,” says Rudser, now an aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) at Thales in Orlando, Florida, and a director for the Association of Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM).
Upon entering A&P school, the gender disparity in the field struck her immediately. In fact, in 2009 she became the first woman to graduate from the Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Orlando, Florida, which opened in 2006.
The 2021 U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, a study published annually by the FAA, reports 2.62 percent of certificated aircraft mechanics are women (or 8,231), up from 2.56 percent (7,860) in 2020.
“We’re excited because we’ve [women] gained a partial percentage point,” Rudser says.
According to Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report 2021 Edition, authored by Rebecca Lutte, the aviation occupation least represented by women is maintenance technicians, followed closely by airline pilots where women make up 4.6 percent of the workforce. Even more concerning, the growth rate of women in the career field is negligible.
“Over a span of 60 years, the percentage of women commercial pilots has changed at a rate of about 1 percent a decade and mechanics have increased at about half that rate,” Lutte—an aviation workforce development researcher and associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute—writes in the report. Meanwhile, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020).
Rudser is focused on changing this paradigm with her work both at AWAM, where she leads the scholarship and mentorship programs, and as a member of the FAA’s inaugural Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB), which is tasked with developing strategies to improve female recruitment and retention for the industry.
“I don’t ever expect to see women hit 50 percent of aircraft technicians, but 10, 15, 20, 25, somewhere in there,” says Rudser. “With the right outreach and frankly, with the right marketing, and then add in the right support…a culture change in the industry as a whole is going to drive a big shift in being able to sustain a diverse workforce.”
Women Can Fill the Gap
With an aging workforce and airline travel demand that’s rebounded to a pre-COVID-19 fervor, the industry can’t afford to be exclusive. According to the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) 2021 Pipeline Report, 36 percent of AMTs are age 60 or older. Given the number of retiring technicians, attrition, and the predicted MRO needs of a growing commercial aviation fleet, ATEC projects a deficit of 12,000 technicians in the U.S. by 2041. And this deficit doesn’t account for the need for AMTs in the rotorcraft, business aviation, general aviation, electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and other new aviation segments.
Rudser says women are a natural recruitment field to help fill the current and future demand for technicians. And there are positive signs that this is starting to happen. According to ATEC, AMT or A&P schools reported 11 percent of their 2021 graduates were women, up from a previous trend of 8 percent.
It can be a challenge, though, to retain women in the workforce. “I hate to say it,” Rudser says, “but there’s a huge attrition rate for women from the time they start A&P school.”
Rudser cites long, inflexible work schedules, night shifts, and a discriminatory work culture “stuck in the 1950s” as challenges to retaining women AMTs.
Fighting Against the Culture
“Unfortunately, harassment and discrimination in the industry are still very real, problematic topics,” Rudser says. “For me, it’s ranged everywhere from microaggressions up to being sexually assaulted at work.”
Rudser left the industry for almost a year before getting a call from some friends—male allies—who had moved to a different employer. They encouraged her to come back, and she did. She also got involved with AWAM. Today, after working for more than a decade in heavy and line maintenance, including lead and supervisory roles, she’s back “in her toolbox” and running her own business, Rudser Aviation Consulting.
Her company, launched in the fall of 2021, offers aviation management consulting services, computer-based, aircraft-specific type training, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) courses for maintenance technicians. According to Rudser, educating the AMT workforce about DEI in a way that’s understandable and makes sense to them, and building a culture of allyship and sponsorship that supports women in their careers, are all part of the solution.
But growing female representation in aviation maintenance starts with building awareness of the career.
From Toolbox to C-Suite
“An overarching theme in the technician shortage of our industry, right now, is the fact that people are unaware of the career,” Rudser says. “You have this wonderful hive around an aircraft when you’re having that experience as a passenger; one of the components you just don’t see is maintenance…By nature, it’s supposed to be an invisible career.”
This lack of visibility doesn’t help when it comes to attracting and recruiting new AMTs. AWAM is working to shine a spotlight on the career through its chapter outreach programs that target girls age 10 and even younger. Elementary school is a prime age, Rudser says, to introduce aviation maintenance as a career path, in order to counteract a larger societal issue where girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM fields.
“What’s not being communicated well by guidance counselors, or two parents, is the fact that aviation maintenance is not the career that it used to be,” she says. “Yes, it’s a blue-collar job. Yes, it’s hands-on, but it’s so much more…There is a pathway from your toolbox to the C-suite.”
And, Rudser says women bring unique skill sets to the profession that are needed, including a keen attention to detail for both the technical and paperwork sides of the job—and a humane leadership style. Aviation maintenance environments can be “rude” and autocratic; women with soft skills of communication and empathy introduce these qualities to an environment where it didn’t exist, she says. “It has changed the frontline culture where women are leaders.”
Easing Financial Barriers
Working to improve accessibility to the career, AWAM partners with businesses to provide scholarships for women who are interested in or already working in aviation maintenance. There are scholarships that fund college tuition and others that pay for certification exams, tools, and technical training/familiarization courses. There are even scholarships for work pants and safety footwear.
“It’s my constant goal to have as far reaching and robust a scholarship program to cover the whole person, not just tuition,” Rudser says.
This year, AWAM will award $82,254 in scholarships as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of its founding at the Women in Aviation International (WAI) Conference set for March 17-19.
JuliAnne Miller, a single mother and the only woman in her graduating class of A&Ps at Lansing Community College last August, says the scholarships she received from AWAM, WAI, and her college were instrumental to her success. The valedictorian of her class, she was also named the ATEC 2021 James Rardon Aviation Maintenance Technician Student of the Year.
A fleet services compliance coordinator at Envoy Air, Miller isn’t done with her education. Shortly, she’ll be adding bachelor’s degrees in legal and policy studies and aviation science to her resume. Already a paralegal, she ultimately wants to marry the legal and technical sides of aviation to make a positive impact for aviation safety policy.
“Without the scholarships there’s no way I would have been able to go back and do it,” says Miller, who started A&P school after working jobs as a waitress and at a dog kennel while raising her daughter to age 16.
Amanda Colón, an aircraft support engineer at Textron (NYSE: TXT), says scholarships were what drew her to AWAM as well. She received three tuition/training scholarships, and funding that paid for her written and practical exams.
“Through their scholarships I was able to pay for all my tests to become fully certified and I was able to buy my first set of professional tools,” Colón says.
Mentorship Is Another Key
A member of AWAM since 2018, now Colón gives back to the organization as a mentor. “I have to. The industry has given me so much, and AWAM is awesome,” she says.
The mentorship program that Rudser spearheaded and leads pairs working professionals with AMT students or entry-career technicians. AWAM currently has 38 participants in the program. “Having those mentors and those resources are the biggest help in retaining the aviation workforce,” Rudser says.
Colón also supports women in the industry as a contributing author to Latinas in Aviation, a book and an organization focused on supporting women of Hispanic descent in the aviation industry. “All of the proceeds go toward the Pilotina project—to help other Latinas in the industry with scholarships,” she says. Some of her co-authors are now mentors for her.
While working in a male-dominated field has its challenges, Colón says it’s all worth it in the end. “It’s a passion-driven job,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be without aviation. And every woman I talk to, no matter if they’re flight, maintenance, or ATC, they all say the exact same thing.”
It’s this passion that fuels Rudser’s efforts to support women in aviation through her involvement with AWAM, the WIAAB, and with her consulting company. “I’m not going to lie, a lot of times it can feel very quixotic, what we’re trying to do…but to see motion in the industry at large really feels great,” she says. Rudser, along with the entire WIAAB, will present a report to the FAA outlining strategies and recommendations to encourage and support women pursuing careers in the aviation industry during a public live stream on March 21.