March 17, 2014

The question is important for NBAA Member Companies and others in the aviation industry: Why aren’t more young people choosing careers in aviation, and what can the industry do to help fill the pipelines?

Mike Nichols, NBAA’s vice president of operational excellence and professional development, last week moderated a group discussion on this topic at the annual Federal Aerospace Forecast Conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the American Association of Airport Executives.

“The participants represented diverse industry perspectives on a discussion that we have been having for some time in business aviation,” Nichols said. The session, “Industry Workforce Challenges and Opportunities Café Session,” included representatives from airlines, aviation manufacturers, airports, academia, government regulators and military aviation. AAAE’s Melissa Sabatine, senior vice president, regulatory affairs and Rose Agnew, principal of Aviation Innovation, co-moderated the session.

Today’s Challenges

The group’s first assignment was to reach consensus around common challenges facing workforce development across the industry. Economic, regulatory and cultural issues all play a part in the challenges they identified:

  • In the U.S., aviation used to be considered a glamorous career, offering good pay, excitement and travel, among other benefits. Over the years, this image has faded, aided by a decade of industry decline that began following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and continued through the 2008 recession, which has resulted in industry layoffs in a host of professional categories.
  • Instability in federal funding of the national aviation system, which has resulted in economic ripples of furloughs, postponed investments and slow to no-growth in certain segments. This negative cycle is believed to have contributed to the lack of attractiveness of aviation professions to today’s students.
  • Regulatory changes that create hurdles for young professionals; for example, the recent increase in the number of flight hours required for airline pilots and additional training requirements for other types of aviation employees.
  • The historical pattern that has characterized the aviation industry since its birth in the U.S., which often discourages new entrants by having a narrow view of potential employees. For example, the first commercial pilots came out of the military at a time when women could not take up those roles in the U.S. armed forces.
  • The competition other industry sectors provide for young people with high-skill engineering and technical training coming out of universities and specialized schools.

There was general agreement that economic, cultural and industry cycles will change in the coming years, altering the landscape of challenges. For example, more women are becoming pilots in today’s U.S. military, and it is reasonable to assume that more of them will look to continue their flying careers in civilian life. It is also possible, said session participant John Heimlich, “we should look to changes in when pilots retire as well.”

Heimlich, vice president and chief economist of Airlines for America said, “We are living longer, and working longer. In a few years, we might see pilots staying on the job until 66, or perhaps even longer based on medical fitness,” he said. “One of the things we need to be doing is making sure we’re working on the right problems and asking the right questions.”

In addition to pressure-testing the challenges, Nichols encouraged participants to offer ideas that might lead to innovative solutions to some of the workforce issues they identified.

Pilot Case Study: the High Price of Entry ‘Disconnect’

A recent GAO study that NBAA participated in along with other aviation associations, regional and major airlines and universities with aviation programs found that the difficulty young pilots face in trying to build the necessary flight time, along with the high pricetag of the training itself, are both factors in the current shortage of qualified pilots.

“We call it the ‘disconnect’ that happens when a college student at a career day who has a commercial pilot certificate with 300 hours TT, 10 hours multi-engine time and $100,000 in college debt asks a corporate flight department manager: “I’d love to work for your company; what does it take to get hired?”

“A typical answer is, ‘Come see me when you have 4,500 hours total time and 1,500 hours turbine PIC time.’ This means the student is probably going to pursue another career path,” Nichols said.

Tomorrow’s Opportunities

In this spirit, the discussion group identified several approaches, beginning with the idea, as Embraer senior marketing analyst Jorge Nasser said, “We must work to make the industry more efficient and profitable, so that the benefits can be shared with employees. Look at the Google model to see what motivates young professionals.”

  • Addressing the cost of achieving required certificates/ratings. The industry could develop models for apprenticeships, internships and co-op training programs in exchange for employment commitments from students to ease the cost and certification requirements.
  • Updating regulatory requirements to reflect the skill sets required for aviation in the 21st century.
  • Allowing the FAA to educate the public about the benefits of aviation careers. Since the 1990s, the FAA has been prohibited from any activities that promote aviation, when its leadership is needed and can rightly be considered part of the federal government’s NextGen commitment to modernization the nation’s aviation system.
  • Considering how technology advances will be introduced and how to safely maximize the benefits of technology (e.g., will the flying public accept a hybrid concept that applies UAS technology to provide for one pilot in the cockpit, and another on the ground?]

Nichols explained that moderating the workforce development idea session is part of NBAA’s commitment to advance careers in business aviation. This includes helping Members address concerns about attracting talent to serve as pilots, flight department managers, maintenance and repair specialists, scheduling and dispatching, among the many varied career opportunities available in business aviation.

In addition, NBAA provides career days for students at its events, sponsors scholarships, and partners with colleges and universities offering degree and certification programs in aviation. Learn more about NBAA’s scholarship programs.