by Mark Baker
AOPA President and CEO
Published In Midwest Flyer Magazine Online October/November 2021 Issue
Still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, the U.S. economy and job market have been unpredictable, to say the least. “Now hiring” and “help wanted” signs continue to hang in the windows of businesses that are struggling to recover. But while the demand is there, the workers don’t seem to be.
Despite signs of recovery, there remains a record 10 million job openings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This labor shortage has affected every industry — including aviation.
Like many sectors, a lack of resources has been a significant problem for some airlines, especially with the early retirements of senior crewmembers in the wake of the pandemic. In a reversal from the woes of 2020, airlines are now calling for a mass hiring of pilots as the aerospace sector turns in a positive direction.
Over the summer, we saw a sudden surge in travel. Many Americans, especially those newly vaccinated, were willing to cash in on their very postponed vacations. In August, TSA numbers hit another high with 2.2 million travelers passing through security daily — the most since pre-pandemic levels.
And while the friendly skies haven’t been too friendly to the passenger, it’s a different story for the crew up front. Pilots are reaping the benefits of the economic recovery. Delta Air Lines announced its plans to hire 1,000 new pilots by summer 2022, while United said it will hire 1,500 pilots by next year and 3,000 by 2023. Meanwhile, American Airlines plans to hire 350 pilots by year’s end and 1,000 in 2022.
The same demand is there for business aviation, with Argus TraqPak forecasting that private aviation may emerge from the COVID era as much as 10 percent larger than it was before the virus. In fact, June 2021 was the busiest month for private flights since October 2007. Those stats are backed up by Textron Aviation’s second quarter results: The aircraft manufacturer delivered 44 jets, up from 23 last year, and 33 turboprops, up from 15 in 2020.
There’s a call for qualified aviation professionals across all facets of the industry. Boeing’s latest report showed a need for 763,000 pilots, 739,000 technicians, and 903,000 cabin crew members from now until 2039. In commercial aviation alone, the industry is projected to need at least 2.1 million new personnel in the coming years. Many of these jobs will come with a nice paycheck. In fact, making a living as a pilot ranked number 26 in U.S. News and World Report’s 100 Best Jobs of 2021.
While this demand is great news for current aerospace professionals, those aspiring to a career still need a pathway. The industry has work to do when it comes to recruiting younger generations to aviation, to help fill this pipeline. Getting your foot in the door is often the biggest obstacle to making a living as a pilot, especially for those who don’t come from legacy aviation families.
First impressions are key. Airshows, fly-ins, discovery flights, and community airport days are all great options to introducing outsiders to aviation. Visiting career fairs like the one at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is also a good way to make connections. According to one recruiter at this year’s career fair, interest from young pilots asking about aviation careers was up an estimated 50 percent compared to 2019.
AOPA is also a great resource for aspiring pilots. We’ve got a wealth of knowledge in our Pilot Information Center. The specialists can answer questions on flight schools, medical certification, and the process of getting started. We’ve also got an incredible High School Aviation STEM curriculum, free to schools, that introduces students to careers in aviation; our program is in more than 300 schools across 36 states. And it includes a diverse pool of students — 20 percent of participants are female, and 45 percent are people of color. I’m proud to see how much the program has grown since its inception in 2015. This past year, the AOPA Aviation STEM curriculum received two accreditations from education research firm STEM.org — a huge honor.
At the same time, the very definition of aviation is evolving, as the aerospace industry is entering a new era of emerging technologies. From unmanned and supersonic flight to alternative fuels, all signs point toward a bright future — one that will need a new generation of professionals. Like any industry, uncertainty is inherent but a career in aviation won’t lead you astray. We all love the sense of freedom each time we get out and fly — getting paid to do it is just the icing on the cake.
The demand is there. We need to work together to ensure that a great supply of talent is also there.