Personnel Considerations

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Faced With Workforce Shortages, Industry Must Attract New Talent

April 29, 2013

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Could it be a perfect storm for human resources in business aviation? As the workforce in the industry grows older, attracting new talent has also become more difficult, even though most analysts agree business aviation will enjoy double-digit growth over the next couple of decades.

Will there be a shortage of qualified personnel coming into the aviation pipeline? If so, how critical will it be?

Estimates Vary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) National Employment Matrix predicts the number of “aircraft pilots, copilots and flight engineers” in this country will grow from 103,500 to 114,900 (11.1 percent) between 2010 and 2020. The BLS also predicts that the pilot and flight engineer workforce within the airline sector will grow from 70,800 to 75,300 (6.4 percent). Notably, the BLS has predicted more robust growth in those professions within “commercial aviation” (non-airline) during that same decade – from 32,700 to 39,700 (21 percent).

At the same time, educators suggest the number of aspiring pilots entering flight training is dwindling.

“Student pilot starts are at a historic low, I believe,” said Dr. Margaret Klemm, associate professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, FL. She was one of three professors interviewed about the possible labor shortage and how business aviation interests could best navigate around it should that predicted shortage become a reality.

The low number of pilots is generally a function of economics and could be a contributing factor to any pilot shortage that develops in the future, explained Klemm. She also pointed out that here in the U.S., pilots have traditionally been required to find their own ways of financing flight training. In addition, they also have to finance their own efforts to build time in the cockpit. That is becoming more expensive as traditional methods of offsetting the cost of building time have withered.

Klemm noted that many pilots traditionally have built hours by serving as flight instructors, or by delivering cargo, checks or film. “But since we have fewer pilot starts now, flight instruction is often no longer an option.” And because of the Internet, flights delivering checks and film overnight have gone the way of the Pony Express.

The combination of fewer pilot starts and fewer ways to offset time-building costs, combined with the coming increase in minimum flight times required for air transport pilot qualification, are indeed barriers to finding qualified pilots, Klemm concluded.

Let the Marketplace Decide

Dr. Bijan Vasigh, professor of economics, finance and information at ERAU, is confident that the economy itself will deal with any shortage of pilots, mechanics or support personnel in either business or commercial aviation.

“I’m not that concerned about having a shortage of human resources in the aviation industry,” he said. Rather, it is a matter of how the industry will cope with its own increasing need for qualified personnel that will become the focal point of discussion in years to come, he suggested.

“When airlines and companies recognize that they’re having difficulty attracting qualified people, they’ll decide they need to jack up salaries and incentives. The industry will take care of itself. If there is a problem, it won’t be unresolvable,” Vasigh said.

The question is, however, to what lengths would the industry have to go to attract the people it needs to continue to thrive?

“The obvious thing to do is what the military does: ab initio training,” said Klemm. “You recruit students, invest in their training and give them a job when they get out. You’ll have a quality employee. But you’re asking companies, whether airlines or corporations, to make a huge commitment. That’s not the model we have in this country.”

Vasigh said the idea is not only viable, but is already practiced in some countries like India and China, where quality candidates must be recruited.

“That’s the key solution. It’s extremely productive, fast and focused, from my point of view,” Vasigh said. “That [approach] attracts more focused employees. I think the benefit of that is much better than the cost.”

Or Stay With the Current Model

Dr. Robin Sobotta, chair of the Business Department at ERAU in Prescott, AZ, notes the international aspect of the aviation personnel challenge. “Not only will we have this huge need for talent in the U.S., we’ll also see it in the emerging BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China). And we’ll see exponential growth in unmanned aircraft systems and cyber security,” she added.

Business aircraft operators will have to go beyond simply showing up at colleges and universities to meet those students, Sobotta predicted. They will have to actively recruit the best and brightest. “That’s because of the shortage that is being generally predicted throughout the industry over the next five to ten years,” Sobotta said. “Part of guarding that frontier between sectors is to really respect the talent that you have and utilize it appropriately.”

To “guard the frontier” and to meet the increasing need for a talented workforce, Sobotta proposed a four-point plan:

  • Promote more transitional opportunities. Give recruits a chance to move seamlessly from education to business by offering students internships and co-ops that can lead to employment opportunities once they graduate.
  • Align your business with universities that give students both an aviation education and a global outlook. Look for institutions that offer degrees in aviation business administration, global business and languages. That way, they are not only ready for the global work environment; they are ready to take your business global as well.
  • Increase your business’s collaboration with academia in preparing job candidates. Contact educators. Tell them what you want in a graduate. Education has been transformed by that kind of communication. Give your business a higher profile on campus by lecturing, offering tours of your facility, taking on interns and even serving on educational boards and committees.
  • Consider exploring emerging technologies like unmanned aircraft systems and cyber security. This attracts students interested in leading-edge activities, positioning both them and your company for future growth.

NBAA provides a useful resource for Member Companies and others in the industry looking to help build a pipeline of career opportunity for future business aviation professionals. Learn more about the NBAA Business and Collegiate Aviation Pipeline Program Guide.