Getting more women into the aviation industry: a day at Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance

Daphné Desrosiers
11/04/2019 | 1667 words
Getting more women into the aviation industry: a day at Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance
@ Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance
Each year, more and more women are opting for careers in the aviation sector, even if the percentage is still low: 12% for Air France Industries in 2017. This is a net increase on 2009, where women made up just 7.7% of the company's workforce, the Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance group's French branch which has over 14 000 employees. As the company is making it a priority to integrate more women into an essentially male world, it enabled seven female students from the Lycée François 1er high school in Fontainebleau to discover the sector as part of the "Féminisons les métiers de l'aéronautique" project to get more women into the aviation sector created by the Airemploi careers service. Three godmothers volunteered to welcome them. Marie-Laure, Low pressure (LP) module workshop manager, Magalie, UT Methods Design Office (DO) manager and Sabrina, U45 planning agent.

The three godmothers for the operation. © D. Desrosiers

Generating vocations

From the very start, the tour of the Air France Engines units at Orly airport held a host of surprises for the students. Unlike what they had previously though, a hangar is not a dark, smelly, dirty place. On the contrary, the different hangars are bright, spacious, quiet and free of any traces of oil or fuel. The space is carefully organised to optimise working time and the working areas are coloured with the different types of engine which are installed there: CFM56, GE 90 or LEAP-1A/1B.

Marie-Laure explains: "Today, the mechanic's trade is not gender-specific. As you can see in the hangars, there is a lot of lifting equipment and physical strength is no longer a factor when selecting staff. Whether you're male or female, you can't lift a 300 kg fuel regulator using just your arms. The progress that's been made in ergonomy and teamwork mean that we have comfortable working conditions".

The recruitment opportunities proposed by Air France Industries will be taking off in the next ten years. In fact, the age pyramid is such that significant recruitment will be required across all the Engines units. Whether they have a vocational high school diploma to advanced higher education (5 years post-high school), each candidate has a wide choice of activities to start their career or to move up. This is particularly the case as the company sets great store on internal promotion for its employees. A young person can start their career as a mechanic and then gradually move up the ladder.

The godmothers emphasise in particular the attention to detail needed in aviation careers. © D. Desrosiers

Passion, attention to detail and desire...

"First and foremost, it's an activity that you can really get your teeth into", says Elodie, the manager of Unit 6, engine accessories. "There are no women and that's a shame. A lack of knowledge that these careers exist is one of the main reasons why we don't have any women, which is why it is important for us to promote them and prove that they are accessible to women. We mustn't put up any barriers, which are often psychological ones; we should give them the tools they need to succeed".

Whichever career they choose in the aviation industry, candidates need to have certain qualities such as a major sense of responsibility: there's no room for chance and a lack of attention. Candidates need to pay close attention to detail and there's pressure at all times, whether generated by the need to keep to deadlines or to follow procedures and apply good practice. The godmothers explained in turn this meticulous organisation which is vital for careers in the maintenance sector. Locating pins, secure cabinets or acronyms such as FOD (Foreign Object Damage) will soon hold no secrets for the Lycée François 1er students.

"It's vital to follow procedures", Marie-Laure reminds them. "This is as true for the mechanics as for the engines which will then be put back in place. Today, jet engines have reached a maximum level of reliability and the human factors culture is vital for safety. Each person needs to tidy their tools away in specific places, follow instructions and avoid routines. A successful operation needs to be signed by name at the end of each task, committing the employees with their own responsibility. You need to be meticulous and show a high degree of humility by being able to admit your mistakes. This enables anomalies to be resolved before a major problem can occur. One engine is reserved for training purposes and revision sessions are also organised regularly. Mentoring from older workers helps young workers progress or perfect their skills before they change unit".

And they had plenty of examples to mention. Refitting hundreds of fins on a high pressure (HP) compressor, weighing fan blades to the nearest gram or presenting a refitted HP turbine body really grabbed the students' attention. Young Linh, a 4th year student was amazed: "One sheet of A4 per screw? There's more paper than parts! It'll be a real jigsaw puzzle when you need to put it back".

Make sure you don't forget anything in an engine. © D. Desrosiers

3/8 shifts or 24 hours in the life of a woman

The mechanics work in 3 shifts of 8-hours, working time organised as rigorously as the tasks they perform: 6.25 am/1.34 pm for example for the morning shift. But is night-work female-friendly? Sabrina replies: "It's not just completely possible, but you can also do it if you have children. It doesn't stop me working, quite the opposite. It's not a stopping point. The lifting equipment makes the work easier and you can change station if you're pregnant. Timetables can be reorganised for any employees, whether male or female. You need a strong character in this business and be able to fight your corner in a team made up of men. I've always been made very welcome, even on the day when I started. When I was recruited into cabin maintenance I was surprised to see that there were no other women at these stations in Orly. Over time, female mechanics on work placements joined the team. I was happy to see other women expanding the maintenance pool".

There are family stories at Air France Industries. Some mechanics hand on their passion and know-how from father to son, sometimes over several generations. One of the students, Cosima, commented at the end of the visit: "It's impressive, everyone knows everyone else. You can see that there's a good atmosphere and I'm surprised that there are female managers".

It's true that company spirit is everywhere, as the three godmothers prove. Their eyes light up when they talk about their work, their environment, or the training they had to take to meet their objectives. Magalie talks about her own background: "I wanted to work in air transport at Air France. I mainly studied mechanical design with a technical high school diploma followed by a 2-year BTS programme, then an engineering college on a combined work-study basis in the maintenance sector, always with working in the aviation sector in mind. During my apprenticeship in the automotive sector I always kept an eye on the jobs that Air France had available. I was invited to selection interviews. I was absolutely delighted and I achieved my dream in October 2017 when I started my current job ".

Over the course of the day the three godmothers did their utmost to pass their passion onto the students. © D. Desrosiers

Beating preconceived ideas

Linh shared her surprise during the debrief at the end of the visit: "I never realised that there were so many activities and people working in the background to keep a plane flying". Combined with a lack of information about these technical careers, preconceived ideas still die hard. Working for an airline always makes you think about being a pilot or working as cabin crew. But a rich and varied range of careers are available. A passenger can only go on holiday on board an aircraft if the inter-dependent chain of activities works together in unison. The technical flight crew can only start their engines after verifying their approval for return to service (APRS) signed by maintenance. The cabin will only provide the necessary level of comfort if its design has been fully checked.

The list of conditions is long, but as the godmothers who were delighted with their day emphasised: "We are proud to know that we have made our own small contribution to getting the plane to fly. It's the end result of our work. We want to provide passengers with the maximum level of quality. It's important to let people know the full richness of our work as this is still far too unknown".

After this day of discover, the students now need to summarise their experiences by creating an original piece that they will present to panel brought together for the occasion by Airemploi. For this 6th edition of "Féminisons les métiers de l'aéronautique", the theme selected is a comic strip whose subject is women, aviation and/or space. All of the work produced will be presented at the International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget (Seine-Saint-Denis) on 18th June during the awards ceremony. In 2017, the team of young women who represented Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance won third prize thanks to their ingenuous creativity and rejected plane parts.

The aviation shoe by Lycée Paul Eluard in 2017 © Airemploi

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