The commercial airline industry is currently facing a shortage of pilots unprecedented in recent decades. As Jon Evans observed at TechCrunch last week, the number of active pilots in the US has fallen from over 800,000 in 1980 to just 600,000 in 2017, a quarter of whom are student pilots who are unqualified to operate commercial flights. And as Evans discovered by taking up pilot training himself, part of the reason behind that shortage is that the training is “complicated, and difficult, and stressful”; many would-be pilots get frustrated and give up long before they make it to the big leagues.
Another barrier to entry, however, is expense. The reason so many commercial pilots have military backgrounds is that the military is about the only place pilots can log the thousands of hours of flight time they need to become certifiable commercial pilots without having to pay for it themselves. With the US airline industry expecting to face a shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots by 2020, Travel Weekly’s Robert Silk takes note of a new vocational training program American Airlines is launching in an effort to build a bigger pipeline to the cockpit:
The Cadet Academy will train participants for up to 18 months at American Airlines’ partner flight schools in Dallas, the Fort Lauderdale area, Memphis or Phoenix. Students will follow what American calls “a carefully choreographed flight-training track, where you will learn the skills to become a safe and competent aviator.”
Those who finish the program will have the opportunity to interview at [American’s wholly owned regional carriers] Envoy, Piedmont and PSA. Program applicants need not have experience in the cockpit. Participants will have the option of receiving financing from Discover Student Loans. The company said it would offer loans at competitive rates, either variable or fixed, that have no fees. Payments can be deferred for up to three-and-a-half years.
American’s new program is in keeping with a trend among employers facing current or prospective shortages of talent in their industries: Rather than wait for governments or educational institutions to produce more qualified candidates, they are taking matters into their own hands. The most notable companies pursuing these self-starting workforce development strategies are tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook, but other companies are also investing in vocational training on the blue-collar side of the labor market.
Lowe’s recently launched a program to offer its employees vocational training in skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing, and appliance repair—where the Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees a shortfall of 500,000 skilled tradespeople by 2026—while its main competitor Home Depot is sending $50 million on a decade-long project to train 20,000 construction workers. Those trainees will help fill a shortage in the construction sector that currently stands around 158,000 people, while ensuring Home Depot a steady future supply not of employees, but rather of customers (contractors and tradespeople account for some 40 percent of the hardware chain’s revenue).
The economic stakes are high: A PwC study from last year estimated the value to the US economy of reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training at over $400 billion, making a strong case for increased investment in vocational training and apprenticeships. Such investments are not just about filling labor market gaps and corporate social responsibility, however; in many cases they are also about attracting and retaining talent by offering employees the opportunity to build careers within a company. That’s a big part of the impetus behind the new education benefits on offer to employees of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
Of course, American Airlines and the airline industry writ large have their own unique set of business and talent challenges as well. Pilots are a unionized workforce and their union is pushing for more profit sharing and bigger contributions to its members’ pensions, with many of today’s working pilots now approaching their mandatory retirement age of 65. That wave of retirements is exacerbating the talent crunch, as airlines can’t rely on their Baby Boomer pilots to keep working into their seventies as many are choosing to do in other fields.
American’s investors may also be wary of the company making big bets on workforce development; the company’s market value took a hit last year when CEO Douglas Parker announced a plan to spend $930 million on wage increases through 2019 without adequately communicating to investors the role of those raises in his talent strategy. Meanwhile, airlines can forget about automation to solve their labor problems in the cockpit: Self-driving cars may be hitting the roads, but self-flying planes remain a pipe dream at best. “I can easily envision self-flying AI which handles 99.99% of flights,” TechCrunch’s Evans remarked, “but that 0.01% of exceptional situations will be awfully hard to train for.”