Industry hunting for fresh pilot and mechanic talent

 - May 21, 2008, 6:46 AM

It is common knowledge within the field of aviation that there is a diminishing pool of pilots and mechanics from which to fill a growing demand. But the situation is not quite so simple. Gary Kiteley, executive director of the University Aviation Association, said that while enrollments in collegiate aviation programs began increasing about three years ago, it is important to consider the inherent time lag in producing viable employees. “It takes roughly five years after enrollment in a baccalaureate program and two years in an associate program before a student is available to the workforce.”

Professor Roger Bacchieri, chair of the aviation division at Daniel Webster College, explained that there was a softening among student starts in the early to mid-1990s because the industry was not hiring. The lack of students during that period contributed significantly to the void that must be filled now. Since that time new pilot student starts have steadily increased, and in approximately two years there should be a significantly larger pool of experienced applicants positioned for entry-level corporate and regional airline flight crew positions.

“A high-school student interested in aviation today knows the market, and it is projected to continue to be fantastic,” Bacchieri said. “We have about 500 students at Daniel Webster and about 260 are in one of our aviation programs– flight, aviation management or air traffic control.” He said the college admits about 135 freshmen annually into its flight program. “Most of them take 4.5 to five years to complete the program and approximately two more years of flight instructing to be competitive for a regional or corporate flight-crew position. Truth is, we have more of a problem keeping instructors than finding students.” Daniel Webster College isn’t alone in its experience with flight instructor retention.

Lack of Instructors

“Our students have flight instructor ratings when they graduate but they don’t stick around long,” said Stephen Held, program coordinator for Parks College of Engineering and Aviation. “They’re getting hired to fly for regional airlines shortly after they graduate. The last two freshman classes were large but instructor retention may force us to reduce the number of freshmen we can accept. We’re watching the situation closely.”

He said Parks’ administration was “giddy” with the 75 freshmen who enrolled for flight training last fall. “After things settled down,” Held said, “we realized what a really large group that was and we’ve since capped flight student enrollment for this fall at 60 slots. Would you believe we have 200 applicants for those slots?” he asked.

The University of North Dakota has 1,400 aviation majors and about 75 percent are in a professional, four-year flight-related degree program. “We had a slight dip in enrollment in the early to mid-1990s and dropped down to about 1,000 aviation students,” said Ken Polovitz, assistant dean for student services at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “That was down from a late-1980s high of 1,800 students, which was frankly too many, too fast.”

Polovitz said the administration wants students to start flying during their first year. About half the freshmen start flying the first semester, with the remainder starting in the second semester. “We have 500 students a year take our private-pilot course,” he said. UND now practices controlled growth and maintains an aviation student body of approximately 1,400. Like Daniel Webster College, UND keeps a close watch on its instructing staff, Polovitz said.

“We require the flight and instrument instructor ratings to graduate so we produce about 175 instructors a year, but they get hired away fairly quickly,” he said. “The biggest concern we have is a lack of sufficiently experienced CFIs to instruct the required flight instructor classes. That’s an area where we might be forced to limit enrollment based on the availability of experienced instructors.”

Assistant professor Paul Davis in the School of Aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology interviews potential students. “We’re finding pretty good people. There are an increasing number of 17- to 18-year-olds who’ve learned about flying through Young Eagles and other discount learn-to-fly programs,” he said. “We’re accepting one in eight applicants for the aviation program and the flight program is even tighter.” FIT offers seven undergraduate, three master’s and one doctorate program
in aviation. “We limit our incoming aviation freshman class to approximately 125, with about 80 percent of them registering for flight. At any given time we have a total of about 300 flight students,” he said. Davis also predicts that the resurgence of experienced flight personnel should hit the market in about one to two years.

Partnership with Airlines, Regionals and Schools

One method to smooth the process has been discussed for many years but produced varying success. It is a formal relationship between airlines and academia. Polovitz said UND has a number of bridge programs with regional airlines, such as Horizon Air, Piedmont and Mesaba. “When our graduates get 500 to 600 hours of flight time they are hired by a regional,” he said. “But the problem they face is transitioning from a 140-knot Seminole to the right seat of a Bombardier CRJ.” UND’s answer to that problem is to add an FAA-approved level-6 CRJ simulator. “Once that’s in place our graduates will have training in airline-type operations in a regional jet simulator.” Kiteley agrees with that plan of action.

He recalled attending a college aviation symposium held by Delta Air Lines during which the sources of pilot training were discussed. Kiteley said Delta’s director of training compared the typical military to civilian hire on a scale of one to 10. Academically, collegiate graduates were fairly consistently rated at a nine because most have aviation-specific degrees. Military trained pilots varied on academics because their four-year degrees could range from engineering to social studies.

“Flying skills, on the other hand, were just the opposite,” Kiteley explained. “Collegiate flight program graduates rated about a five out of 10 while military pilots had flying skills rated at a nine.” He said that’s where the airlines can help collegiate aviation by providing access to simulators in off-peak hours, providing training software and so on. “We have to be able to graduate a first officer,” Kiteley stressed.

Polovitz felt the same way and stressed the importance of establishing “flow through” programs with air carriers. “Now that so many of the regional airlines are owned by the major carriers, the issue of robbing Peter to pay Paul has hit home for the airlines. They know if they are going to get pilots from their own regional they had better have some lined up to take their place. That’s where academia will come in,” he said. But if the pilot situation is rosy, the mechanic situation is the thorn.

Mechanic Shortage All Too Real

Contrary to popular belief, not all A&P schools are going out of business, but the picture is still grim. Dr. Maxine Lubner, chair of the aircraft operations and technology department at New York’s College of Aeronautics, said her school has 1,400 students enrolled in its A&P, avionics, airport management, engineering technology, computerized design and flight programs. Unlike other institutions, the majority of students, about 1,000, are in the A&P program while the college’s flight program currently has about 100 students. “The flight program is new,” Lubner said. “It’s only 3.5-years old and enrollment has tripled during that time.”

Explaining the college’s high number of maintenance students, Lubner pointed out it is located in the heart of New York City across from La Guardia Airport and has a 60-year reputation of educating aircraft mechanics. “We’re the only institution in the area that gives a combination A&P and academic degree,” she said. The college’s enrollment has been steadily increasing for years, and although the maintenance portion has leveled off Lubner stressed it has not decreased.

“We get federal money because we’re a Hispanic-serving institution,” Lubner said. “Some of the students lack some math, language and science skills so we have the division of special skills that offers an array of basic skill courses to aid students in their pursuit of studies at the college. Our students know we care about them and help them guarantee their own success.”

George Hoxie, division chair for the aviation technician program at Minneapolis College, acknowledged the nationwide trend of declining maintenance enrollments. “Fortunately, we don’t have that problem. We’ve been able to raise the bar and continue to fill classes, but you have to realize we’re in a city with a strong airline presence, including Northwest, Sun Country and Mesaba, and a strong corporate aviation presence too.”

The college’s dean of the aviation center, Gordon Hoff, said the two primary problems relate to inadequate pay and benefits for mechanics coupled with a long-standing negative image associated with aircraft maintenance. “I think the image issue is improving slowly,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go. On the pay and benefit front, Northwest just signed a contract with its mechanics giving them a major increase. I’ve heard United is poised to do essentially the same thing. The industry may finally be acknowledging the problem.”

Hoff went on to suggest that we are looking for mechanics in all the wrong places. “Look,” he said, “today’s new airplanes are fly by wire, the systems are computerized, you plug a computer into an onboard computer to do troubleshooting. We’ve become a high-tech industry and we have to start recruiting a different breed of high school student.”

Director of graduate programs Bill Hampton said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University can’t accept everyone who wants to join the school’s program, but in general he feels the maintenance picture looks scary 10 years from now. He further said, “Demand clearly outstrips supply when it comes to mechanics. With a nationwide decrease in interest in aircraft maintenance, I don’t know how we’re going to resolve this issue in the industry.”

But these and a few other institutions tend to be the exception to the rule. The University of Illinois’ more than 50-year-old A&P program, more recently operated by a consortium of Illinois community colleges, closed last year for lack of students. Parks College, also suffering from a dramatic decline in A&P students, has reinvented itself and created a 13-month institute program that not only dramatically reduces the time to completion but also exempts the student from the private university’s significant tuition. The program, which begins this month, will cost students $17,000 to complete, not including housing.

“We’ve come to the realization that it’s a perception issue rather than need,” Held said. “It is more about how students, teachers and counselors view the career. They think grease monkey, not technician. How do you get a bright, technically adept student into the field?” Held said Parks is actively recruiting in the high schools and offers a summer academy to new high-school seniors for aviation/engineering awareness. “Our faculty gives presentations to local high-school vocational programs,” he said. “But we’re still having trouble convincing teachers in the hard sciences and computer science to let us into their classrooms.”

Long-term Solutions

Kiteley brought up the need for a grass-roots effort similar to the one that ignited back in the Apollo days when every kid wanted to be an astronaut. “Today everyone wants to be a Bill Gates,” he said. “Aviation has lost its luster, overshadowed by high tech. We have a basic, grass-roots selling job to do. The industry needs a major wakeup call to do something to make careers in aviation attractive to young people.”

Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, couldn’t agree more. “We’re not marketing ourselves to students. One reason is the individual employers are still operating in their own realm. There’s been no banding together of energies to create a major effort to get maintenance technicians,” he said. “Let’s face it, at some major airlines it will be 28 years from the point of hire to getting on day shift. We’ve got to do something about that. Why would anyone want to come into a field like that? And we simply have to solve the criminalization and liability issues. People are afraid an honest mistake will send them to jail, and to this day we still have no malpractice insurance for mechanics.”

He went on: “Mechanics are portrayed as uneducated, unsophisticated, unkempt individuals. What we really need is one well placed television program or feature movie in which an aircraft mechanic isn’t comic relief. Finally, we must put together a coalition of industry, academia and government so the A&P curriculum can become a dynamic, living document with standards determined by the group rather than by regulation. It’s the way medical and legal education works. Today the mechanic situation is a business problem and it’s up to us to solve it before it becomes a safety problem.”