Workforce Summit: Solid Solutions Already Underway to Address Shortages

By Kathryn B. Creedy

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A Pair of Shorts Photo: Kathryn Creedy

No one could walk away from the recent FAA Workforce Summit without feeling optimistic and energized about the future, especially given the fact the summit attracted 700,000 online viewers on FAA’s Facebook page. Speakers reported there was more interest than ever in pursuing aviation as a career and solutions targeted both pilots and aviation maintenance technicians.

“There were a lot of concrete ideas for solving our problems and it was great to hear all the grass roots programs to get kids interested in aviation,” said RACCA President Stan Bernstein of the one-day event. “But it was also sobering. There is a lot of work needing to be done to reach workforce goals including the changes needed in the financial, regulatory and legislative arenas which constitute a significant barrier not only to entry but to incorporating 21st Century training techniques into civil aviation programs.”

Speakers called for a holistic approach and training reform.

“Nothing can be off the table,” said National Air Carrier Association President George Novak.

Experts, including Bernstein, reported how pilot shortages are affecting cargo carriers and e-commerce as well as communities and the fact many training slots are taken by students from other countries.

Others recounted recruiting efforts expanding down to the elementary school level and the return of “cool” to the aviation career. Perhaps most gratifying, however, was the training changes being tested now by the US Air Force that will produce better pilots in half the time.

USAF Provides Path to Train Better Pilots in Half the Time

The inclusion of such groups as Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) provided a unique look into one of the most problematic issues in the industry – the lack of racial and gender equality in the workforce. Indeed, many speakers, including OBAP, spoke of their efforts in getting off the airport and into the inner cities to attract the next generation and the importance of addressing transportation for under-served communities. Republic Airline even has a mobile classroom with four Virtual Reality simulators to reach beyond the airport into local schools.

“It is part of our solution to help ensure we stay ahead of the tsunami shortage,” said Senior Vice President Matt Koscal. “We need to replicate this nationwide. We need a lot of help to ensure financing is available and we definitely need to address this at the regulatory and legislative levels.”

Rising Pressure to Make Changes

“I’ve never seen such a collection of experience talking on a single issue,” Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, said in his closing remarks. “We have ‘violent agreement’ that workforce development is a real and pressing challenge and shortages are already costing the country and the industry.”

Recruiting issues are compounded by training issues, said Bernstein. “If you visit the larger flight schools, the population is largely made up of foreign students whose training is being paid for by their governments,” he explained. “Few stay in the US. When they return home, they become first officers on an Airbus with 300 hours, while our students are still flight instructing.”

Elwell agreed. “This is a global problem but we are spending a large portion of our training resources on solving other countries’ problems,” he said. “We are spending our national resources on helping the rest of the world to catch up.”

But, according to Novak, it is actually the US that has fallen behind.

“Europeans and Asians are in front of US right now in terms of solutions,” he said echoing many speakers. “The US is behind the curve on this. ICAO is in front of us and we have to look at what they have done. This is not just about the loss of air service as aircraft are grounded. It means that manufacturing is not taking place which is an indirect result of shortages. This impacts manufacturers and defense readiness and will be a crisis in the coming years that will have larger impacts than we see now.”

Millennials Demand Changes

Bernstein also pointed out the industry is facing a new generation unlike any encountered before. “One of the most important issues is the fact we are dealing with a different generation of pilots in the same old-school way,” he said, echoing US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s comment training regimes haven’t been changed in 30 years. “We are encountering the millennial generation and have to adapt and change our ways to address that. This new generation is looking for quality of life and we have to find ways to deliver that. Addressing workforce issues that need to change allows us to grow and expand, something we can’t do now because of the critical shortage.”

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He also spoke of other shortages, echoing several other speakers. “Simulators are taxed to the limit and it takes months to schedule a session,” he said. “There is a shortage of designated pilot examiners and CFIs. These are all issues that need to be addressed. There is no one solution to all the problems we face. It is our long-term, strategic responsibility to develop programs, training partnerships and flow-through programs but our immediate problem is real because aircraft are grounded. Management is flying more often and that is taxing other departments. There are no magic wands here so we have to attack this on multiple fronts including modernizing training and developing financing. What we have not mentioned is national aviation academy. Perhaps it is time to look at that as one of the solutions.”

RACCA, said Bernstein, has long been working with universities to restore the pipeline. “We have a long-term, strategic responsibility to develop programs, training partnerships and flow-through programs,” he said, citing the FedEx Purple Runway and the UPS Gateway programs. “These new flow through programs are up to date examples of meeting the new pilot needs for our regionals as well as guaranteeing future pilot availability for our integrator partners. I’m proud to point out one of our members – Cape Air – created the nation’s oldest pathway program with JetBlue and has provided the model of all other programs.”

The effort to develop pathway programs, said Jason Blair, representing the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA), must be replicated at the flight school level.

“The collegiate training environment is doing a fantastic job, but is only one part of the training pipeline,” he said. “When we look at the numbers, we find that even though there are technically over 100,000 CFIs in the FAA database, many of them are working other aviation jobs, such as airline pilots, and that on any given two-year period only about 12,000 of those CFIs have actively signed off even one applicant for a rating or certificate.”

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Courtesy: ERAU Prescott

Speakers suggested the creation of a professional CFI, giving greater recognition to this lynchpin job. “Our CFI jobs are transient and many that do the job flow upward to other jobs and only do it for a short period of time, but keep their CFI certificates active so they don’t lose them,” explained Blair. “Additionally, we have lost many Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs) over recent years. Couple this with a drop in pass rates on practical tests across the board of 5-6% and we see a need for an additional 5,000-6,000 practical tests in our system. With fewer DPEs, and more tests needed, we have seen constrictions of testing availability in the high-density training areas with some areas experiencing wait times upwards of five weeks to even schedule a test. FSANA and an industry group are working actively with the FAA to address this challenge, but it takes time and it will also take attracting qualified individuals to become DPEs and to the FAA in Air Safety Inspector (ASI) positions that oversee the DPEs and help keep them current and qualified to do their work.”

Many speakers urged industry to think outside the box viewing the problem of recruitment and training holistically.

MRO Industry Needs to Think Outside the Box

Bernstein’s comments were echoed by Aeronautical Repair Station Association Vice President Brett Levanto who noted that thousands of young people who self-identify as wanting an aviation career go elsewhere upon graduation.

“By 2027, we will be 9% short of what is needed,” he said. “The shortfall can already been seen by the money left on the table and aircraft left on the tarmac for lack of personnel. The capacity for maintenance is not about square feet in the hangar or the number of benches in the component shop. It is about the people you can put into the space that have the experience and technology to work. The inability to find workers is already costing billions in our inability to take on new work, expand and meet demand. The problem is maintenance skills, knowledge and experience are in incredible demand. They get the training and then go to other industries because of wages or location. This is a tremendous opportunity to address this challenge to not only get them in the door but develop a formal pathway through mentors. This is how we not just replace the current generation but how we achieve a healthy workforce so we never have to talk about this again.”

He also said one of the bigger hurdles is convincing parents to allow the pursuit of careers as an aviation maintenance technician. Also needed is supporting an increase in technical and vocational education by returning to such options as apprenticeships.

Cost of Doing Nothing

Levanto reported members have 1,045 open technical jobs but, projected across the entire FAA-certified repair stations in the US alone, the shortfall is closer to 11,000.

“The weakening focus on technical skills development and hands-on careers, which have been sacrificed in the name of ‘college-track’ learning in primary and secondary schools, has produced a deficit in applied knowledge,” he said, echoing many speakers who mourned the lack of focus on vocational and technical schools to help solve industry problems. “Without basic understanding of tools, mechanical systems and repair fundamentals in potential applicants, both technical schools and employers are left scrambling to fill workforce gaps without a reliable pipeline of individuals ready to fill open positions. Instead, we must think holistically about the maintenance workforce. In addition to individually-certificated A&P mechanics, which tend to dominate the discussion, employers and policymakers must embrace and encourage growth of repairman and non-certificated technicians.

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Aviation Technician Education Council’s Chuck Horning agreed. “While certification remains the gold standard, and I don’t want to diminish its value, we have to recognize no one is hired for their certification,” said Horning. “They are hired based on their character, their willingness to learn and be part of a team. The pathway concept needs to be applied to the maintenance side. We need to develop a three- to five-year program to train them up. We shouldn’t be hidebound by what is needed coming in the door. Being open minded can help us in terms of what we need. Without technicians airplanes are only yard art.”

He spoke of the fact education starts at what a wrench is. “In the past, teenagers were taking apart cars and lawnmowers but they don’t do that much anymore,’ he said. “Today, schools have a conundrum because students are coming in without mechanical aptitude they once had. That is compounded by employers wanting higher skills than was in demand years ago. So the curriculum is in need of modernization, including simulation. The technology used in maintenance training has to be develop to make it more efficient.”

Elwell agreed. “We have also seen that a four-year degree is often not necessary and we have to expand the horizon,” he concluded. “We have to focus on solutions because I know, in my gut, opening aviation careers to all Americans who have the skill and aptitude only gets us so far. The question is how we improve training so new pilots can be transformed into to safer experienced professionals the traveling public deserves. We are not going to compromise we need to remember it is not going to be enough to maintain our current level of safety we need to actively improve on it.”

Maintenance also took center stage as Suzanne Markel, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA) of training students while minimizing cost burdens and complications. She underscored the challenges facing any organization seeking to develop technical talent, including duplicative and inconsistent FAA oversight, lack of available testing resources, restrictive curriculum and poor outreach to underrepresented populations. This mirrored what AF Secretary Heather Wilson said in her remarks about the unnecessary duplication in pilot training.

Conclusion

The FAA Workforce Summit was unique because it did not stop with just quantifying the problems and consequences industry faces if nothing is done. Speakers came armed with ideas and solid recommendations on what needs to be done. It is clear the work needs to happen on multiple fronts, as Bernstein suggested. NACA suggested looking abroad and at the international pilot training standards created by ICAO. ARSA, ATEC and Elwell favored expansion of vocational education and apprenticeships. The Air Force is developing programs to train better pilots in half the time. All careers can also benefit from mentoring programs which not only helps students remain in the aviation game when they are faced competing careers upon graduation.

The question remains, however, whether the summit will result in a good feeling with nothing concrete to show for it. Or, will it result in wholesale changes to how we recruit, educate and work with the next generation. The good news is it was clear participants were very anxious to get on with the many tasks ahead.

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