Most aviation schools — whether they train pilots or technicians or any other career that sends planes into the sky — are exactly where they want to be. In an industry with an apparently insatiable appetite for talent, their services and their students are in demand.
Kent Lovelace, a professor in UND’s aviation department who also leads the school’s industry relationships, described a long list of perks for budding pilots. Compared to yesteryear, they’re spending less time flying for regional airlines before going on to something bigger, and they’re earning fatter paychecks sooner, too. It’s part of a decades-long trend, Lovelace said, that began with industry stagnation in the 2000s and has been intensified in more recent years by pilot retirements.
“With those two factors, you throw any kind of growth in there and the pilot shortage is significant,” he said.
But it’s not just pilots. According to an industry report from Boeing, North America will need 212,000 new pilots, 193,000 new maintenance personnel and 176,000 new cabin crew “to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years.” Those are figures the company say encompass commercial and business flight as well as “civil helicopter industries.”
“As several hundred thousand pilots and technicians reach retirement age over the next decade, educational outreach and career pathway programs will be essential to inspiring and recruiting the next generation of personnel,” the company said.
But not every school has been able to capitalize on the growing need in aviation. The aviation program at the University of Minnesota Crookston has stopped admitting new students, it announced earlier this year.
“It’s a great program, one that has been here at the university … for 50 years, so this was a difficult decision for us,” John Hoffman, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, told the Herald. “That being said, it’s an expensive program that requires a certain level of scale, especially given some of the new Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that are being implemented for the training of pilots.”
Hoffman said the program has historically been a “niche” program, focusing on things like agricultural and natural resource aviation and law enforcement. Increases in demand, he said, are more for “pilots (and) certified flight instructors that go into the dual-engine and beyond,” raising further questions about the program’s long-term viability.
The timing of the program’s end, though, is tied most closely to the end of a partnership with UND that had previously provided University of Minnesota Crookston students with access to airplanes and simulator equipment.
“UND Aerospace shared that they would need to provide our students with even greater access to airplanes and simulators in order to comply with FAA regulations, and they could no longer carry that cost on their end,” Hoffman said. “The option would have been for us to purchase an airplane and flight simulator in order to maintain the partnership, which they were willing to help with; however, the cost of that equipment was simply more than we could justify for the smaller number of students in our program.”
Chuck Pineo, CEO of the UND Aerospace Foundation, acknowledged FAA changes but pointed more toward the Crookston program’s enrollment.
“Really, we had a great partnership with Crookston. It’s just the program didn’t have a lot of enrollment, so it came down to we were unable to grow the program and focus growing it like we have other aviation programs. It just didn’t make sense to continue,” he said. “It was just one of those things where it started to not make sense.”
But at Northland Community and Technical College, the future of aviation-related training is still bright. Curtis Zoller, associate dean of aerospace and agriculture, said “demand has only increased” in recent years in job markets for which NCTC students train, like aviation maintenance. He theorized that part of the worker shortage in aviation has to do with messaging, arguing that there simply isn’t broad awareness that students are missing out on a lucrative opportunity by forgoing a career in aviation.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how we represent what opportunity exists out there,” he said.
And that’s part of the equation that leads to big demand in the industry, which is snapping up as many graduates — around the industry — as it can.
“We just can’t create enough of them,” Zoller said.