To what degree is college required for career pilots?

 - May 7, 2008, 11:37 AM

The aviation industry has often been heavily focused on the requirement for new-hire pilots to have a college degree, that is up until the past few years when the supply of university-educated applicants began to evaporate. Since supply and demand dictated hiring more people without a college-level education, the industry looked toward high-school graduates who have worked their way up.

But a degree can and should be much more than a check mark on a pilot job application. What makes a degree worth more than simply the paper it is printed on is the value it delivers to both the pilot and employer.

The need for people with more formal education to lead the business aviation industry, as well as the long-term changes in the job market for people employed in this segment, may soon cause aviation department managers to reconsider educational qualifications in a way they never have before. The future for corporate aviation may soon witness an unbending requirement for a college degree.

According to Dr. Tom Carney, a professor and associate chairman in the department of aviation technology at Purdue University, “One could argue that if you’re technically qualified, you can be perfectly safe. But with safety being the spectrum it is today, the right education will add dimensions to a person’s capability that are beyond those needed to fly an aircraft, but are harder to define. The ability to think more clearly and express one’s self in a professional manner orally and in writing is critical to success today.”

In what may already be a cultural trend toward better educated managers and pilots, the 2000 NBAA Operator Profile and Benchmarking Survey showed nearly half the companies with sales of more than $2.5 billion required managers at the chief pilot level and above to hold a four-year degree. In companies with sales revenues of less than $100 million that number dropped to 22 percent. In the pilot ranks, 25 percent of the largest companies in the nation required their business aviation captains to hold four-year degrees. At companies under $100 million in sales, the figure drops to 11 percent. For copilots, the number requiring a degree ranges between 6 percent at the smallest companies to 18 percent that require a degree for the largest companies (see figure). Those numbers are expected to rise.

Traditionally, the most senior pilot in a flight department was eventually promoted to the chief pilot or flight department manager position, under the assumption that the most experienced pilot in that company’s operation would make the best manager. This often proved to be a fatal mistake for some flight departments.

Jeff Lee, IBM’s director of flight operations and the former chair of the NBAA Corporate Aviation Management Committee, said, “The people who lead an aviation department in the future may not necessarily be pilots. They could certainly be mechanics as well. The skills to lead have very little to do with flying an airplane or turning a wrench.” Kevin Harkin, aviation department manager at Corporate Air Service, added, “If you want to go beyond flying you also need the manager’s skill set.”

Corporate pilots now face the choice of whether to continue only flying airplanes for the rest of their careers or move into areas that may offer new challenges and additional responsibilities. But as Lee noted, “Like mechanics, pilots often don’t get a lot of training in how a flight department actually works. There are some who are pushed out of their comfort zones into managerial positions and are totally lost. But there are other pilots who really want to manage, but have only a narrow idea of how a department operates.”

Education vs Degree

Part of the problem stems from the difference between a degree and an education. A person can pick up a degree from any of the hundreds of degree-granting organizations around the country that simply deliver a piece of paper. With the right education, however, a person learns to view life and the solutions to life’s problems differently than those with a less formal education. Simply put, he or she thinks differently.

While the precise purpose of a university degree varies with the individual, experts agree there is a correlation between a good formal education and a pilot’s ability to successfully complete ground school, but little connection has ever been proven between a college degree and a pilot’s ability to fly an airplane. Many career counselors will tell a pilot to get a degree in a field of study they are interested in. The underlying meaning is that when the cyclical wave furloughs pilots and department managers, they’ll have some skills to fall back on to earn a living.

Some pilots are already seeing the handwriting on the wall. Robert Neve, a helicopter pilot in Canada, said, “In the Canadian helicopter industry there has never been any requirement for post-secondary education for a pilot position. And, to the best of my knowledge, all advertisements for aviation management positions require a specific type of experience. Not many request a particular level of education. Having said that, I’m finding that a greater percentage of entry-level pilots are college or university educated.” Neve has no college degree but is working toward a corporate aviation management certificate through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“There’s also a pragmatic requirement for a college degree in a corporate flight department,” said Janice Barden, president of Aviation Professionals International. “One of the first things the CEO says is ‘I’m not paying someone this kind of money who does not hold a degree.’ Many discerning company officials also want to know where a pilot received his degree.”

Carney agreed: “In a corporate setting, a degree from a good university holds more value.” For a cockpit crewmember or mechanic, value often translates into continued employment while a less qualified individual is let go.

Susan Anderson is president of Factory Pilots Plus of West Palm Beach, Fla., a company for contract pilots. She does not have a degree, although she does have college experience. “Even if I did have a bachelor’s degree, how would that help me now?” she wondered. “I could have a degree in basket weaving and I could say yes to the degree question, but what value does it really have? Certainly getting a degree shows you have staying power and a commitment. So what does an ATP certificate show? But seriously, I also know I have gone as far as I can without a degree.”

“I sacrificed college to be an Army helicopter pilot,” said Kevin Baker, a professional jet captain currently between jobs. “Even after the Army I had no time to work on a degree because I was working seven days a week running my own charter business. I’ve been working with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University online though since 1985, taking a class here and there to finish my degree. It is a personal thing to finish my degree. I think a degree makes for a well rounded individual. It gives you background and depth to converse with people on another level.”

He added, “I have a short fuse with pilots that want to do nothing but drive and believe everything else is someone else’s job. I think you need to be as robust as possible and help your employer get the job done. If you won’t go the extra mile, someone else will.” That desire to go above and beyond, including the education necessary to accomplish a new set of tasks, is the precursor for future managers.

Lee agreed, “A degree gives you a hint of people’s abilities, but it really shows when you assign them a task.” Carney added, “You need pilots today who understand they provide travel solutions not just fly airplanes.”

Miles East, a pilot who has a four-year degree and currently flies for Textron, said, “I think that the flying portion of my job is a very small part. I’m a data manager, safety manager, navigator and a customer-service manager.”

Today’s pilots need to decide whether they only want to fly airplanes or if they want to manage the operation should they either not want to fly or be unable to fly because of a medical condition.

Well Heeled Managers

Iris Critchell, former chair of Harvey Mudd College’s Bates Aeronautical Program and an aviation educator for 55 years, said, “The managers who believe pilots lack a business side to maintain connections with management are speaking of people who are primarily pilots. They are trained largely by the companies in how things work and to support company goals. The typical pilot applicant in recent years, with the aviation management degree, is actually not expected to go into management. Those pilots would be giving up flying, and that isn’t what they went to school for.”

The degree prerequisite is actually not new. “A college degree became a default requirement for pilots in the 1970s, with the military pumping so many pilots into the civil system,” Lee said. “It could simply have been a discriminator that became the standard until the past couple of years when the military hasn’t been delivering as many aviators as they used to. People recently available to business aviation employers have often been those who worked their way through the system as flight instructors and charter pilots in lieu of college. Now we have a lot of technicians instead of college grads. And while the degree is a reflection of the marketplace, we must ask what a flight department needs in the future. We have to promote these people within our companies. We haven’t planned the succession issue very well.”

Lee believes business aviation operators will need to begin hiring people with the right skills to take a flight department into the future, or they will need to begin developing these skills with people already employed within a department who have shown the aptitude and desire.

But in the end there is really no choice for department managers and pilots if they want to remain competitive. “Pedal faster and learn what you need to compete or be left behind,” said Lee. “Everyone actually benefits when employees broaden their skills,” he added. Baker questioned whether managers might be intimidated to bring someone with his previous management experience on board. “They shouldn’t be though. They can leverage my background because I can make them look great.”

Change will not occur easily, whether it is convincing pilots of the need for more formal education or managers of the need to hire better educated pilots. One Seattle-based pilot, who did not want her name published, said one manager she worked for asked her point blank, “What does a pilot need with a master’s degree?” and “What good is a pilot who doesn’t fly?”

“This sort of manager likes feeling superior,” she said. “Such managers don’t like people around who have the capacity, much less the inclination, to question their decision making. Their ideal candidate is someone who can fly well, read and write adequately to fill out the manifests and write up squawks, but does not identify problems, process them and generate solutions. And heaven forbid they memorialize anything in a memo or letter. You wind up with no one within the department who can be promoted, and the next manager probably comes from outside the company. I think there is a real disconnect between the folks most business aviation managers are genuinely comfortable with and the type of candidate the universities are trying to prepare.”

Carney acknowledged that some managers might feel threatened by people who are better educated than they are, but also sees light at the end of the tunnel. “Whether you have a degree or not, no current manager should feel threatened. Managers today shouldn’t be put at risk if they are already successful even though they don’t have a piece of paper. We all lift each other up by more knowledge. I just can’t see a downside to a better educated workforce. We’ve raised the bar, and that helps everyone. The goal is not to alienate people but to bring everyone along. The goal is also to develop a successful flight department. But it won’t happen overnight.”

Textron’s East is dual rated in the Cessna Citation 650 and Bell 430. Despite the fact that he holds a degree in English literature from Brighton College in England, he said, “No one at Textron asked me if I had a degree when I interviewed. But I think they assumed I did. Persistence is what got me this job.” Surprisingly, East added, “Some pilots won’t even apply at Textron without a degree because they think they need one. But the company has no formal degree requirement.”

What Kind of Degree?

Aviation professionals who believe in the need for more formal education are also scratching their heads about what sort of degree they should pursue, especially since most corporate and airline degree requirements seem to care little about the subject. Critchell said, “A bachelor’s degree in aviation management, for instance, prepares students to be airline pilots. It is limiting because there are not as many academic course as other kinds of degrees. They fill the need of the college time, but practically these students have an associate’s degree. Without a four-year degree, a pilot with no education is completely dependent on the medical certificate. If that goes they are on the street.”

However, the size of the flight department does reflect the company’s overall interest in education. “Promotion possibilities are seldom even considered in a small flight department,” said one pilot. “In a small flight department the model is that you’ll be a copilot or a co-captain for a long time. In small departments you’re stuck,” said Harkin. “Seventy-four percent of NBAA is small flight departments.” Critchell said, “Some companies don’t have any interest in pilots who want to move ahead.” NBAA’s Evans added, “Sometimes small departments don’t want a degree because they are just looking for a pilot. But the larger departments do care about a formal education. I think small departments will be changing the way they look at pilots, but the change will be industry driven.”

NBAA is in the final development stages of a new education program leading to a flight department manager certification through testing. While the new qualification may appear on the surface to be only a way for pilots without a formal education to climb the ladder, Evans believes even pilots with degrees will want to participate. Lee said, “If you’re certified you have the skills, the knowledge, the motivation and the aptitude for management. This is the equivalent of a degree.”

Essentially, the standards for the program are set by NBAA. The actual classes will be offered through eight major academic institutions– many through online distance-learning programs–in conjunction with the association’s professional development program (PDP).

Evans explained, “The rationale for the certification is to make sure the flight department has proper managers and to provide an industry-wide standard for management in corporate aviation. Right now there is no formal training to become a flight department manager. This is a career path for future managers. We’re still working on the details for the certification test, but it should include a written component, a practical exam and some additional prerequisites.”

Since mid-1999 East has taken 22 of the NBAA-approved classes, and he plans on taking the certification test as soon as it is available. “I didn’t see anything else other than the PDP [and certification] that would differentiate me from someone else when it came time for promotion,” he said. “My main criticism of the program though is that no one has marketed the concept of certification to the aviation department managers so they’ll see the value. I also wish I had more guidance in getting this organized before I started too. There were no written prerequisites.”

Harkin said, “I would like to see all my pilots go through the NBAA classes even if they don’t go into management so they can understand what managers do.” Baker added, “I think the NBAA certificate will help add some value to a flight department by demonstrating a pilot understands the functions necessary to run the department. This credential also says, ‘I’m not afraid to invest in myself.’”

Many people interviewed by AIN agreed that a candidate’s education level should not be the tiebreaker for a job. Harkin noted, “The degree gets you in the door for the interview, and after that it is what you can do. We’re trying to find people who can add value to what our companies are doing today.” Baker added, “People need to be interviewed, not their paperwork. The attitude might be better with a lesser qualified candidate.”

East said, “All the degree does is say you’re capable of learning and manipulating information. I think it is generally hard to find the right individual to employ, and you should look beyond a college degree as a discriminator. You will pass over some really good people. If you feel that strongly about a degree, give a person a chance and pay for their education.”

Anderson asked, “How many good pilots have been turned down for a position because they didn’t have a degree?”

Costs associated with furthering an education can be an issue. Like many larger companies, Textron, East said, “has 100-percent tuition reimbursement.”

But time is also a concern, said Anderson. “I want something that will expand my thinking, I want to be more knowledgeable in my field. One of the problems with going back to college is starting from English 101. Going to college full time right now would ruin my flying career. That is why the online program looks so good. And what is the rush? If I finish my degree today, what is it going to get me?”

Neve said, “Management positions are few and far between. And any senior manager will fill those positions with people they know and trust, and they will pay to educate them.” He believes, however, that despite holding a degree, “If I had taken the four years and just started flying, I would be further ahead in my career.”

Carney said, “Who is going to take over as senior corporate people retire? Who will take a leadership role? Watching what the airlines have done, I’d say let’s get the best blend of people to manage. If a pilot exhibits a lack of knowledge or skills, those are fixable. You can train to standards and get rid of those ruff edges. But we can’t change who a person is. Isn’t all that interaction important in a corporate flight department? We should want the best blend of interpersonal skills, as well as a person who is a technologist.”

“People with an aviation qualification added to that bachelor’s degree are in great demand on the aeronautics employment market, earn higher starting salaries and above all, have more flexibility to meet the wide ranging changes that occur in the industry,” said Critchell. “They are the ones who become
the senior managers, and marketing leaders. Industry wants the best prepared and most flexible employees it can get. The people with the most and best formal education have more choices in aviation and provide the vital ingredient–flexibility.”

Do you need a college degree to be hired and succeed as a corporate pilot today? Not really. But will a college degree be of value to a pilot just a few years down the road? Most likely. Barden countered, “I think a person with only a high-school education sends a message that they’re not a part of the world today.” But Lee added, “Aptitude and interest are also important. It will help employees develop if they have the skills and aptitude. Leaders are made more than born.”

Carney spoke to the future: “We are headed toward a degree requirement for most everyone in this industry–pilot or manager. You’re so limited without one.”

Louis Smith’s Internet site,, publishes decision information for active pilots and applicants. “There is simply no reason not to get a four-year degree. It opens a lot of doors once you’re hired. A university degree will often get you more contacts within the industry as well.” According to Anderson, “There seems to be a real camaraderie between alums.” Smith added, “The degree can still be a strong tiebreaker.”

“Times are changing,” Neve concluded. “A post-secondary education is now what a high-school education was 20 years ago. And more and more colleges and universities are offering aviation degree programs. So the competition increases. This is good for the industry as a whole. But don’t forget that intelligence and ability aren’t just based on education, and flying experience isn’t just based on hours in the logbook. It’s what you can do with them that counts.”