GAO: Does the FAA Workforce Have the Needed Skills to Keep Air Travelers Safe?

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspectors and engineers work to ensure airlines are safe and that aircraft are designed and built to meet flight safety standards. The workforce must keep pace with changing technology, new data-driven oversight methods, and more. 

More than half of the FAA’s safety inspector and engineer workforces will be eligible to retire by 2025. This, along with the need to keep up with new innovation and technology makes regular workforce assessment vital. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the FAA doesn’t regularly assess these workforces to find the areas where needed skills are lacking. As well as improving safety for air travelers, assessments could help better determine hiring and training needs.

GAO’s review found that the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety (AVS) has started to identify the critical competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, abilities, and behaviors) that its inspector and engineer workforces need to oversee the safety of the aviation industry, but it does not assess organization-wide competency gaps in these workforces on a recurring basis. AVS identified, for example, data analytics, systems thinking, and risk-based decision-making as competencies engineers need to perform safety oversight.

AVS officials told GAO that managers in offices located across the country individually assess whether their respective employees have the skills needed to carry out their responsibilities, but this approach does not provide an organization-wide view of competency gaps. 

AVS takes steps to train inspectors and engineers on skills to carry out their safety work but GAO found it has not assessed the office’s training curricula on a recurring basis. Training for inspectors and engineers includes extensive introductory curricula covering general and job-specialty courses, recurrent training, and on-the-job training. AVS has policies for routinely evaluating individual training courses and incorporating improvements. However, it does not assess on a recurring basis whether the training curricula as a whole adequately provide employees with needed competencies. 

AVS has faced challenges with hiring inspectors and engineers, and fell short of meeting its staffing targets for inspectors by 4 to 6 percent from fiscal years 2017 through 2019. These challenges are mainly due to the difficulty in finding qualified applicants and industry shortages in occupations, such as pilots, that apply to positions in these specialties. In addition, like other offices in FAA, and indeed other federal agencies, AVS is competing with industry for these employees. It is worth noting that the impact on the workforce from the COVID-19 pandemic may be substantial, and the availability of qualified workers is consequently an evolving situation.

GAO recommends that AVS assess, on a recurring basis organization-wide competency gaps for its inspector and engineer workforces and training curricula for these workforces. The FAA concurred.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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