Flight Training: A Guide to Aviation Education

Experts say that a global pilot shortage and increased air travel are fueling a boom in aviation education provided by colleges.

By Josh Moody

With increasing demand for aviation training, experts recommend students start training in high school. (GETTY IMAGES)

FROM FLIGHT TRAINING TO aviation management and mechanics, colleges are gearing up to meet labor challenges faced by airlines.

Over the next 20 years, the aviation industry will need 790,000 new pilots across the globe, according to a 2018 study by aircraft manufacturer Boeing. The study predicts a need to recruit an additional 206,000 new airline pilots in North America alone. Similarly, Boeing predicts a global need for 754,000 technicians and 890,000 new cabin crew members in the next two decades. While those numbers are grim for airlines, they’re a positive sign for aviation majors looking to land a job after college.

To draw students in and fill shortages in the workforce, airlines are partnering with colleges to bolster flight training programs.

“A lot of our industry partners have stepped up and they’ve offered scholarships and pathway programs to try to give a little more certainty to students that are considering entering the profession. And that certainly has paid off. A lot of students take advantage of those programs,” says Jim Higgins, aviation department chair and professor at the University of North Dakota.

As an example of how industry is partnering with colleges, Associate Dean of the College of Aerospace and Aviation Professor Elizabeth Bjerke points to pathway programs at UND through a variety of airlines. Pathway programs offer graduates a direct path to working for an airline while scholarships help students pay for college.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires 1,500 flight hours in order to earn the airline transport pilot certificate needed to fly commercially. An aviation degree-holder benefits from a lower threshold for required flight hours. A graduate of an FAA authorized institution needs only 1,000 flight hours to fly commercially if he or she earned a bachelor’s degree in aviation. Graduates with an associate degree need to log 1,250 flight hours to earn an airline transport pilot certificate.

But colleges are struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing demand. One of those challenges is finding enough seats for potential pilots, says Mike Wiggins, professor and department chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has campuses in Florida and Arizona.

“We’ve reached pretty much the most we can handle here at the Daytona Beach campus, and our Prescott campus is pretty much at capacity as well. From what I understand, most of the other flight schools are reaching capacity at this point,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins suggests students who might be interested in a career in aviation start training in high school. Students can earn a private pilot certificate at age 17 by logging a minimum of 40 flight hours. Pilot training must include at least 10 hours of flying solo.

“There’s a couple of reasons for that; it will accelerate their time in flight training in college, and it will make sure that this is what they really want to do before investing a considerable amount of money into flight training beyond that point. It’s something you’re either going to like, or you’re not,” Wiggins says.

Students interested in a career in aviation should be intentional about pursuing that path in high school studies, says Mike Suckow, associate professor of practice at Purdue University—West Lafayette in the School of Aviation and Transportation Technology. “Don’t shy away from technology courses, math and science courses, because those are fundamental to what we do,” he says.

College graduates can earn additional hours by serving as flight instructors. Bjerke says pilots can often hit the 1,000 hour mark in a little more than a year as flight instructors. From there, Higgins says that many pilots join regional airlines that are often hit harder by the shortage because of more lucrative pay and benefits at major aviation companies, which incentivize employees to work there.

While pilots are on the front lines of the aviation industry, experts also stress the need to fill the often unseen technician slots.

“There’s some evidence that the technician shortage is actually going to be worse than the pilot shortage, but nobody is really talking about that. The maintenance technicians are more behind the scenes; not too many people see them or know them. But there’s going to be a shortage of those (technicians) going on as well, and those are actually pretty good paying jobs,” Wiggins says.

Industry salaries and hiring have shifted upward in recent years as demand for personnel has steadily increased.

“The major airlines are finally hiring at rates we haven’t seen since before 2001. When there are opportunities, more young people are interested in coming into the field of aviation, which is great, but right now the increase in demand does present some challenges as we try to accommodate all of those individuals,” Bjerke says.

“It’s a great, great time to be in the industry. Once you choose this career path – no pun intended – the sky is the limit,” Suckow says.

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