Amy Gallagher surveys the future of pilot recruitment and training through a wide-angle lens with the spotlight on education as a recruitment strategy, and concludes that if you provide it, they will come
Humans, by and large, hate change.
Since Covid-19 reared its ugly head, the aviation industry continues to experience a shortage of pilots while creating a new vocabulary of terms like the ‘Great Reshuffle’ and ‘Covid fatigue’, both of which define the industry’s present restlessness. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows about 14,500 open commercial pilot positions as the industry struggles to replace and recruit. With the diminishing generation of baby-boomers and military-trained war pilots, the shortage is driving the need to educate the young while recruiting the more experienced.
The solution to the shortage is two-fold: ‘selling’ the aviation industry as an exciting and meaningful career, while the second solution is just as intangible, starting with the oldest strategy in the books – the actual books. This is educating the next generation of pilots, those as young as middle school, through local community colleges and corporate ab initio training programs.
Through these two solutions, the shortage will transition from being perceived as a lack of pilots, to one projected on the future – not only of traditional pilot positions, but positions that expand our thinking into the possibilities of commercial aviation and space technology careers.
Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard (USCG) explains its retention strategy of cross-training to ‘cross-pollinate’, and Bridger Aerospace ‘opens the aperture’ with training courses through their local community college. Sometimes, change can be a good thing when we begin to see the possibilities.
The ‘Human Dimension’ through ‘Covid fatigue’
The pandemic has affected the aviation industry significantly, leaving many with ‘Covid fatigue’. Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements have been among the most burdensome for pilots and engineers in the industry, with some even switching occupations or industries as they seek stability in uncertain times.
Helicopter operator PHI International’s COO, Mike Price, has said his organization is aware of the fatigue and mental exhaustion caused by the pandemic. As a result, they have ramped up their focus on safety that PHI calls the ‘Human Dimension’, which directly influences the safety and wellbeing of all employees to better support and understand fatigue management.
“We want to be more cognizant of the human role as opposed to just looking at our Safety Management System (SMS) as a process,” he said. “Humanizing safety gives more ownership to employees. Our annual SMS training reviews everyone in the organization, not only the pilots. That’s been a change.”
Another shift has been the focus on mental health, actually ‘talking from the heart’ as an employee group, said Price. Knowing “laughter is the best medicine”, he commented, “one discussion began with a simple question, ‘What makes you happy?’ The employee’s response was priceless: skydiving, kayaking, biking, and simply going to the beach, while talking about ways to reduce stress has also brought lots of laughter,” he said.
‘Selling’ the aviation profession
Creative recruitment techniques are helping companies to rise above the pandemic’s side effects through educational programs, such as PHI’s ab initio training or ‘cadet’ program. Launched in 2021, the cadet program aims to build up the pilot pool in the local community, supporting the commitment for cadets to earn their license while at the same time ensuring the local community has the opportunity for a position.
“We’ve had a fairly significant application load for these positions,” revealed Price. He explained the heli-industry needs to do a better job of ‘selling’ the aviation profession. “We know it’s a pretty cool lifestyle, but we seem to have lost the powerful attraction to aviation as the adventurous option it once was,” he reflected.
While the company has a ‘hardcore group of senior aviators with staying power’, even that group is shrinking, mentioned Price. “The era of the ‘global nomads’ like myself who’ve wandered around the world for 35 years is over,” he said. “We’re not seeing that as a pathway today.”
The company is also making a conscious effort to recruit more female pilots, knowing that women are under-represented, particularly in Australia. “Although we’re still looking for the adventurous type, we are focused on employees who will stick with us for the long term, those who adapt well as part of a team, and who are fairly resilient,” commented Price, who added that PHI also supports and actively seeks to employ members of National Guard and Reserves forces.
Cross-training to ‘cross-pollinate’
In the US Coast Guard (USCG), the pandemic continues its unwanted, constant presence, but the USCG remains strong. “Although the pandemic caused lost training events creating the need to reshuffle duty rosters, the Coast Guard adds value to the profession through a variety of missions that build teams of cooperation and cohesiveness,” said Lt Cdr Kyle Cuttie, who is a MH-65 Dolphin pilot at USCG Air Station, New Orleans, Louisiana. Whether the mission is a medevac to rescue someone stuck in a marsh or conducting a drug interdiction mission, it’s different everywhere you go, he said.
The Coast Guard’s flight training facility in Mobile, Alabama, is strategic by design, serving as a training facility as well as a human resource pool of pilots in the event of large-scale events like hurricanes. “Our Mobile center employs fully-trained pilots and is an example of the huge ‘surge asset’ consistent through the USCG,” he said. “The USCG emboldens a ‘cross-training’ practice bringing in those already trained into multi-phase projects, with a focus of targeting junior aviators to transition into new roles.” The USCG transfers its pilots every four years to ‘cross-pollinate’ as a strategy to cross-train its crews, said Cuttie. “The ‘surge capacity’ speaks to the standardization in the way we train, which is one of our strongest assets,” he asserted.
Educating middle school students
We’re trying to recruit enough volume to meet all the goals at the top of the funnel and go as wide as we can to serve the air med mission to hire those with a passion for aviation
Recruitment has always been a major topic in aviation where we constantly ask ‘how do we find qualified pilots to build a new pipeline of pilots?’ said Jason Quisling, Vice President, Operations, at Air Methods. “For the past two years, we’ve experienced the greatest squeeze as pilots are winding down the final decade of their career, and who are reevaluating their life due to the pandemic,” he observed.
The other challenge is the military-trained pilot candidate pool that has fed the aviation industry for decades is no longer available, said Quisling. “We’re trying to recruit enough volume to meet all the goals at the top of the funnel and go as wide as we can to serve the air med mission to hire those with a passion for aviation,” he disclosed.
Connecting with academic institutions and individual flight training schools as part of the company’s recruitment program also includes targeting high school and even middle school students. “For the future, we have to recruit more people into aviation through educational events,” said Quisling. “Our HR team is very creative in opening up multiple hiring events across the spectrum – fixed centered events, in particular, to educate and attract the next generation of pilots.”
A pilot’s license as common as a driver’s license
Retired US Army UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and Global Medical Response (GMR) commercial pilot, John Alderete’s proposed concept to the pilot shortage may seem ‘out of this world’, but it could actually become quite the norm. “To build capacity, the next generation of pilots must be fed upfront with education to raise a culture of aviators,” he said. “If everyone earned their pilot’s license at the age they earn their driver’s license, then we will have created the platform [of pilots] for the next generation.”
In society and in culture, we are facing the skies once again to explore space, but today it is with commercial industries, said Alderete, who is also Board Member, National Emergency Medical Services Pilots Association (NEMSPA). “By the next ten years, our presence in space will lead us to Mars,” he forecast. “It’s just a matter of time; it’s not a fantasy. In order to build the capacity, the volume of pilots and other aviation/space professionals will be met through education today.”
Alderete, who earned a master’s degree in aviation psychology, specializing in human factors, exudes a passion for reclaiming the once impassioned America that was experienced when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. Part of the solution is for high schools to offer ground school training, and upon graduation, for students to earn their private pilot’s license, he claims. “Recent high school graduates then enter a flight school to complete their aviation career training. This will bridge the gap and minimize, if not reframe, the present day ‘pilot shortage’ to aviation education opportunities,” said Alderete.
Perspective is everything.
Building futures for pilots and mechanics
“When people in the community spot a Bridger Aerospace aircraft, the common question follows, ‘What’s that company with the big red and yellow airplanes?’” said Darren Wilkins, COO of Bridger Aerospace in Bozeman, Montana. The aircraft on the tarmac is our best advertisement to the local community, he declared. “When we give tours of our facilities, the community’s awareness of aviation is greater,” said Wilkins. “What we have here in Bozeman is an opportunity for education. Using education as a recruitment strategy is helping pilots and mechanics within the community, while building a cadre of employees amidst a growing international shortage.
“Companies that are recruiting could do well by ‘opening the aperture’ to offer educational programs,” said Wilkins, adding, “such as the avionics course we are offering at the local community college to build its technician pool at the local level.”
Wilkins said the company will offer students potential job placement opportunities upon graduation along with internships during their schooling. “The more we educate, the greater the understanding of aviation,” he declared.
Investing millions in ‘next gen’ grants
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently launched a recruitment campaign to educate the next generation of pilots with the investment of US$5 million through the Aircraft Pilots Aviation Workforce Development Grant program, awarded to accredited higher education institutions, high schools, state and local governments, and flight schools. “Our investment in the aviation workforce of the future must begin today,” said FAA administrator Steve Dickson. “These grants nurture interest in aviation at an early age to build a career during one of the most dynamic times in aviation history.”
Our investment in the aviation workforce of the future must begin today
Grantees can use the funding to create and deliver curriculum designed to prepare students to become aircraft pilots, aerospace engineers, or unmanned aircraft systems operators, he said. “To maintain the safest and most efficient aerospace system well into the future, the FAA recognizes the need to create a robust pipeline of skilled and diverse professionals,” stated Dickson. “These grants are one way the agency is working to address the projected shortages of aircraft pilots in the industry.”
For a full list of grant recipients, visit the FAA website at www.faa.gov
A school within a company
Britt Coulson of Canada’s Coulson Aviation said, “We attract experienced team members who want to be challenged with diverse opportunities allowing the company to constantly evolve, pushing the boundaries to that of our competitors.” While the company employs highly experienced mature professionals who add a great deal of value to our company, Coulson remarked they are having a hard time finding young people entering the profession. “Our recruitment teams are currently working with schools in the Philippines and Thailand focused on trade school options,” he said.
The company recently launched the Coulson Aviation Training Organization (ATO), which is in the process of becoming an accredited school, resulting in a Transport Canada aviation maintenance engineer (AME) license. Coulson explained that the new ATO division guarantees employment not only post-graduation, but during the course, at no cost.
“This will be the first full-service school for students to combine their passion, education, and work in one place,” said Coulson. “With the training in our facility, we can provide the expensive machinery, tools and equipment, which students will use to perform real-world projects, from re-skinning flight controls to interior refurbishment to composite repairs and honeycomb build-ups, on a real aircraft.”
Increased training, military to civilian
Demand for flight training at FlightSafety International’s (FSI) flight training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the company conducts Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk simulator training is on the rise, with the increased wildland fires creating a demand for Firehawk pilots as well.
“The proliferation of surplus military Black Hawks, as well as the newly established S-70M model going into full production, will likely see that need rise even more in the next several years,” said David Harper, Center Manager, FlightSafety, West Palm Beach. “We have been training military, law enforcement and firefighting agencies on the S-70 variants for nearly 20 years.”
In addition to the standard Black Hawk courses that FSI has developed, the company also creates custom courses to meet the specific operational needs of their customers. FlightSafety was the first commercial location in the world to offer FAA S-70 type ratings as well as FAA Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) ratings on the Black Hawk, and recently partnered with Sikorsky to get FAA type certification for the S-70M airframe.
The company specifically promotes its veteran training program to recruit more military-trained pilots, offered at several locations and on airframes to include Black Hawk training.
“By the very nature of the aircraft, most of our pilots in the Black Hawk program are military trained, but all hold civilian instructor ratings as well,” he said. “To meet this need, military veterans can use either their GI Bill or their Post 9/11 GI Bill to cover or offset the cost of some or all of their training. Our goal is to help these veterans successfully transition into civil aviation.”