Nov. 4, 2019
The best way to reach the next generation of potential aviation professionals may be through social media.
When the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick premiered last year, one could be forgiven for thinking viewers have been transported in a time machine back to 1986. From the trademark aerial action to Tom Cruise’s megawatt smile, the footage was a precisely engineered blast of déjà vu. Hollywood is betting that, more than 30 years since Maverick and Goose took America by storm, audiences still feel the same “need for speed.”
An aviation industry pressed to replace its aging workforce shares that hope. But today’s world is far different than that of 1986, and many wonder if, in a digital era where the whole world seems to be just a tap or click away, does aviation still capture kids’ imagination?
It’s an existential question lurking behind every workforce trend. The need for young people to become the next generation of pilots, maintenance technicians and other aviation professionals is well-known. What is less certain is what aviation means to young people.
A series of recent conversations with aviation students offers a glimpse into Generation Z’s relationship with the industry. What they said underscores the challenges facing aviation in the 21st century. But those conversations also offer clues as to how aviation can make inroads into their consciousness.
DETACHED FROM AVIATION
For all of flying’s ubiquity in America, the average U.S. student is fundamentally detached from the industry itself.
“When I learned I can train to work on planes, it came to me as a shock – I didn’t know these opportunities were there,” said Juan Diaz, a student at the Bob Hoover Academy, the CA-based non-profit dedicated to inspiring at-risk and underserved teens to get engaged in STEM education and aviation.
“Nobody at my school is looking into aviation, they’re all thinking about being doctors or lawyers,” said Wichita High School student Trent Self.
“I talk to people about it [an aviation career] and to them it seems like an impossible hurdle,” said Amrat Chugani, a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
These sentiments seem to be common among students, and without a personal connection to aviation, such as a friend or family member in the industry, young people are unlikely to have any sort of relationship with it.
This detachment seems to be exacerbated within minority populations.
“In my opinion, [an aviation career] is not well known among young people because it doesn’t seem like an attainable dream,” said Isaac Leyva, a Latino student at the Bob Hoover Academy.
Even if young people are aware of aviation career opportunities, there are financial obstacles to pursuing them.
“When I speak to my family [about an aviation career] they’re blown away,” said Joel Rochin, another Bob Hoover Academy student. “They see it as really far off, something that you’re going to have to go to school for a really long time and spend a lot of money.”
An additional factor is aviation’s decreased presence within pop culture. Movies about pilots have long been a valuable recruiting tool. For example, the success of Top Gun boosted naval aviator career inquiries by some 500%. But pilots are rarely main characters in movies or TV shows today.
“We grow up seeing police, firefighters, doctors and lawyers on TV – but never pilots or technicians,” said Laura Pantoja, a recent graduate of Aviation High School in New York.
COMMUNICATION TRENDS BRING NEW OPPORTUNITIES
But warnings about aviation’s shrinking cultural footprint come with an important caveat: the youngest generations are increasingly ditching traditional media channels in favor of social media.
Childhoods spent fully ensconced in the digital world have had a dramatic effect on how young people consume entertainment. Live TV and trips to the movie theater are down. Digital streaming services and user-created content are up. YouTube and Netflix, the current heavyweights in the fight for Generation Z’s attention, now combine for more than 70% of teenagers’ daily video consumption, says a 2019 Piper Jaffray study.
“The teenagers of today don’t know a life before the internet,” notes Beth Sanders, NBAA’s senior manager of content and social media. “They can’t imagine not being able to share everything they do on Instagram or Snapchat. It’s a totally different mind-set, and it’s making social media more important.”
These communication trends represent a new opportunity for aviation advocates to connect with young people. They also point to a uniquely 21st century opportunity: industry people putting aviation directly in front of their friends and family.
“Before social media, aviation was kind of like, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ And now we have firsthand access via our phones and computers to see what that life is like,” said Josh Hernandez, a recent graduate of Quincy University who now is a Part 91 pilot.
Students interviewed for this story all confirmed that they are avid users of social media – particularly Instagram and Snapchat. These two popular social networks enable young people to easily share with peers snippets of daily life. (The overall largest social media network, Facebook, ranks a distant fourth with younger people, though it is still a daily stop for more than a third of them.)
“I love posting [my aviation activities] on Snapchat,” said Rochin. “You’ll get reactions from friends like, ‘That’s cool – you’re really in the plane?’”
The compelling visuals commonplace to business aviation – sleek aircraft, busy hangars, complex machinery – are a natural fit with this “quick burst” medium, and students say their aviation activities are a common, typically well-received, thing to share on these channels.
“We enjoy showing that at such a young age we’re in a hangar, in an outdoor area doing engine run-ups working with all these parts, doing overhaul and maintenance,” said Aviation High School student Christine Alma.
Genesis Santana, a former Aviation High School student who recently graduated with an A&P license, believes that social media gives business aviation advocates opportunities to easily and inexpensively promote the industry – a critical workforce recruiting strategy for a segment of the industry lacking the clear-cut career pathways of the airlines.
“Reaching young people doesn’t necessarily require a lot of money spent on traditional advertising because social media is what dominates our interactions,” she explained. “As an individual, you have a tremendous platform and power – if a pilot posts a lot of videos or pictures, they’re providing really valuable exposure.”
TECHNOLOGY MUST LEAD TO DIRECT INTERACTION
Digital communication can be a valuable tool, but social media alone only goes so far, warns Stacey Wilson, operations manager at the Bob Hoover Academy, where the main focus is on facilitating the kind of direct interactions that make a lasting impression.
“It seems easy to post a picture on the internet, but there has to be networking to help people take the next step,” advises Wilson. “We introduce students to everyone at the airport, with the goal of highlighting all the different jobs required for one flight.”
Jerry Dooyes, president of the Latino Pilots Association, agrees that effective outreach requires a combination of new technology and traditional face-to-face interactions.
“This upcoming generation is so tech-savvy that social media is key to reaching them,” he admitted. “That said, I do feel boots on the ground, in the classroom, is always preferable.”
Though social media isn’t going to singlehandedly solve the aviation workforce challenge, it offers a powerful tool for putting images and videos of aviation directly in front of young people. Even better, it offers people the opportunity to share images that, as one student described, “shows that an aviation career is an attainable dream.”
“It’s never seemed like an aviation career is a common thing,” said Aviation High School student Wasama Khan. “I think posting our pictures makes it seem more realistic – that there’s an accessible path to follow.
A 30,000-FOOT VIEW
Jean Denis Marcellin was one of the earliest business aviation advocates to recognize how social media can be used to promote the industry.
“I’ve been in business aviation for most of my career, and social media has been getting more and more important to people’s lives,” said the Montreal-based Part 91 pilot. “I feel it’s a great way to share the industry’s stories and really communicate our passion for this lifestyle.”
On his YouTube channel, Global Life, Marcellin chronicles – with his employer’s consent – the day-to-day life of a Bombardier Global Express pilot. With videos ranging from flight footage to technical instruction, he’s racked up thousands of views and connected with fans across the world, who pepper him with technical and career questions. By answering queries about his business aviation career, he helps reduce some of the mystery surrounding the profession, he says.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t know how awesome a business aviation way of life can be,” he said. “I like to share that story and the challenges it can bring, because that’s part of what makes it fun, but also the planes, the places we go and the skills that it helps us acquire.”
Marcellin started his channel in part because he felt students receive little exposure to business aviation. He recalls being “sort of the black sheep” pursuing business aviation in flight school, while the rest of his class was eyeing the airlines, and he wants to help future aviators know they have multiple career options.