Averting Shortage of Aviation Talent Requires Industry Support, Creativity

Five years ago, experts called the coming shortage of trained aviation professionals “the greatest threat to aviation safety,” but then the recession struck. “So the problem kind of went away for a while,” said Sheryl Barden, president of Aviation Personnel International, in a session on Oct. 31 at NBAA2012. “Many people still say, ‘Will it ever really come to pass?’”

“It will” was the consensus of a panel of flight department leaders and aviation educators at the session titled “Addressing the Declining Aviation Talent Pool,” but only with support from the industry.

Why the Shortage?

The improving economy, decline in graduates from flight schools and airframe and powerplant (A&P) courses, and global growth in aviation is creating a ‘perfect storm’ of rising demand and tightening supply.

“Certain factors came in to mitigate [the shortage],” said Kevin Hiatt of the Flight Safety Foundation, “but now those have pretty well played out. For one, the airlines’ Age 65 rule is finally coming to an end. Plus, next summer, the 1,500-hour rule will come into effect for first officers on regional air carriers.” There’s also lower turnover today from the U.S. military, and pay in aviation is becoming less competitive.

The shortage is just as evident for maintenance technicians. Enrollment in A&P schools has dropped and A&P graduates are leaving aviation for other industries. “Today’s cars have high-tech components like modern aircraft, so the automotive industry is attractive to the aircraft technician, and to be honest with you, the pay is attractive,” said Mark Malkosky of FlightSafety International.

Creative Solutions

“Unfortunately, when you look at the demand for pilots and maintenance technicians, they’re not met by our graduates,” said Guy Smith of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University Aviation Association (UAA). “So we’re looking for some ways to bridge that gap.”

While UAA schools focus on more than just technical training – including business ethics, working in teams and communication skills – they need support from the industry. Smith encouraged more business aviation professionals to get involved in the industry advisory councils at their local aviation schools, which tend to be dominated by airline representatives.

The panelists also encouraged flight departments to create internships for aviation students. ConocoPhillips, for example, created a Cruise Pilot Internship Program “where interns get to fly whenever the airplane is in cruise flight,” said ConocoPhillips’ Dan Woodard. “And we get them takeoffs and landings when we don’t have passengers on board.”

By getting creative with programs like this, flight departments can make big investments in talent without investing a lot of money.

Focus on Diversity

Given the talent shortage, Barden said it was more important than ever for aviation employers to attract the best candidates from all backgrounds. Currently, only 3.29 percent of air transport pilots are women, and less than 1 percent are African American.

Women often say they enjoy the close-knit team environment in many flight departments, said Cassandra Shelby, a pilot with Coca-Cola and former president of Women in Corporate Aviation International. However, business aviation provides women less career stability than the airlines, she said, “because sometimes flight departments merge and sometimes they close down.”

The number one reason more African Americans don’t enter business aviation, according to Lonnie Robinson of Aviation Career Enrichment, is that they “just don’t know about the opportunities.”

Getting the message out about business aviation, not just for women and African Americans but for everyone, “is something each of us in our companies must do,” Barden said.

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