Is Pilot Training Keeping Up With The Pilot Shortage?

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It’s been hard to miss that things are changing in our industry and that pilot training is much a part of that shift. I escaped my office long enough to attend the University Aviation Association’s (UAA) 71st annual Collegiate Aviation Conference last week and talking with representatives from schools both large and small helped verify some of the trends I’ve been keeping an eye on in flight instruction, airline hiring practices and student recruitment.

Aviation education is an area I find fascinating for a variety of reasons. When I started class at a university flight school, I was struck by how adaptable, driven and engaged the majority of my aviation professors were compared to other teachers I’d had. Watching the pilot penchant to adopt what works and drop what doesn’t used in the classroom taught me a lot, not just about flying, but about how people learn and why teaching methods are so important in a field where both risks and rewards can be life-altering.

One of the things that caught my attention at the conference was how much the employment conversation has shifted since I graduated nine years ago. Back then, aviation jobs were difficult to come by—a fact that’s partially responsible for my writing career—and those who had them were staying put. Quite a few of my classmates ended up finding employment in other fields. Not so now.

Airlines are actively seeking new pilots. There were several carriers in attendance at UAA aiming to develop relationships with aviation universities and flight schools. More and more airlines—and not just the regionals—are putting serious time and resources into developing programs focused on both teaching new students and funneling university graduates directly into their hiring processes. Why?

The pilot shortage. Wherever folks might stand on how it happened or what the best solutions might be, it’s become a reality for the airlines.

In a speech at the UAA awards banquet, Christopher Broom, the managing director of flight and training administration for American Airlines, said that the company expects to lose about 8000 pilots in the next ten years. Looking out further, Broom said that 75 percent of the seniority list at American Airlines will be retiring in the next 15 years. Clearly, they have some seats to fill—and not just for first officers.

According to Broom and others, concerns like age are less of a barrier than they’ve ever been. Pilots are coming out of retirement and airlines are hiring them to fly. The American Airlines Cadet Academy recently opened its doors to its first class—no previous pilot training required and graduates are guaranteed an interview with American’s three wholly owned regional carriers (Envoy, PSA and Piedmont).

Partnership programs with universities and flight schools are also becoming more common, particularly for regional carriers. PSA and Republic were on hand at the conference to talk with schools about their collegiate programs. Although the exact details differ from airline to airline, the basic idea is to provide interviews or conditional job offers to students who complete the program requirements. From where I’m sitting, it beats job hunting after graduation.

Whether there are enough students to meet the future need for pilots is more contested. For now, the answer seems to be yes. Most of the schools I spoke with reported that enrollment numbers for aviation majors were steady or rising over the past few years. The American Airlines Cadet Academy reports that it has received several thousand applications in the few months it has been accepting them. There are interested students out there. There are just two trouble spots: flight instructor availability and number of students.

I know I just said that there were plenty of students coming in—and it looks like there are, for the moment. But looking down the road, there are concerns about the low number of young people interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. That’s not a new revelation, but with the need for aviation professionals expected to continue to grow over the next decade, it could lead to a shortage of students entering aviation careers in the not too distant future.

Several conference attendees mentioned that they’re having a harder time finding experienced mechanics. It has also been suggested that the lack of STEM interest is creating a wider experience gap that teachers need to overcome when taking on new students. This seems particularly relevant for incoming aircraft mechanics and engineers.

Several aviation organizations already have outreach programs in place. EAA Young Eagles, GAMA’s Build-A-Plane and AOPA’s high school curriculum initiative come to mind. What’s different is that awareness of the issue is growing. Organizations such as the Frontiers of Flight Museum have been working on STEM outreach initiatives for long enough to begin to have hard data on program effectiveness.

Colleges are looking into free aviation- and STEM-based summer camps for elementary-age kids. Most agree that repeated exposure and access to STEM activities is one of the primary predictors of interest in STEM fields.

Finally, flight instructor turnover is getting a bit ridiculous. For obvious reasons, the number of instructors at a school is a major limiting factor in how many student pilots can be trained. The experience of those instructors is also an issue, particularly when it comes to finding teachers for more advanced ratings.

Most of the folks I talked to at the UAA event were saying they’re keeping instructors for an average of a year to a year and a half. That’s about on par with what I’m hearing from other schools I’ve spoken with over the last six months. Several larger flight training operations said they track flight instructor hours closely, knowing that once instructors have enough hours to apply for a job at the regionals, most of them are gone.

Beyond trying to find enough instructors to hire, it also means schools are having to come up with new plans to get new hires onboard with school practices and policies. Schools are running more standardization classes—and having to find instructors experienced enough to teach those—and are actively looking for ways to foster good teaching habits and skills in the high turnover environment. Most are in the process of developing these programs and waiting to see how they work out.

Lots of questions are being asked about how these trends in training will play out and there aren’t many answers yet. New training programs will endure if they work and be replaced by something else if they don’t. The industry is adapting, and even with all of the uncertainty, I have to admit it’s good to see hiring vitality in an industry that lacked that even a decade ago.