Why the Coming Pilot Shortage Isn't Creating Lots of New Pilots . . . Yet
The apprentice system made a lot of sense in its day, though apprentices, from Ben Franklin on down through the generations, have had a less charitable view of the process. They felt a bit abused by the system, suffering through poor wages, difficult working conditions, long commitments and uncertain job prospects once they'd done their time. Sound familiar?
With a coming pilot shortage - -it's not marketing, people; its demographics -- the demand for pilots will be great. In the past this looming need has always meant good business for the flight schools. These days, not so much. What gives?
There are several drivers here, the most important of which, based on my conversations with young people and with admissions officers at a couple of flight schools, is the students' concern about wages. After the Colgan crash in Buffalo a couple of years ago I floated the idea of a national minimum wage for airline pilots, though Congress did not immediately write such legislation in response to my proposal. My idea was simply that by throwing a few extra bucks at pilots, as the NCAA is doing with some Division I student athletes, you can improve their quality of life enough to cut down on some of the drivers of fatigue and stress, namely long commutes and mountains of debt.
While Congress didn't go there, it instead introduced legislation that would mandate more time and an ATP for RJ pilots. The too simple idea is that an advanced rating and additional time makes for a safer pilot, which looking at the airline accident statistics--there appears no correlation between experience and accidents--is a dubious premise.
What it did accomplish was to throw even more uncertainty into the marketplace. How so?
Imagine you're a young person looking to enter a career. You've just found out that you'll need to invest a substantial sum of money into your training -- tuition and training bills in excess of $100,000 are the norm -- and then you find out that even after you've done that, you're going to have to get more time before the airlines will even give you an interview. That takes an already expensive education that will result in a low-paying job and adds on the uncertain expense that will be needed to tack on those extra hours -- most likely 700 or 800 extra hours. This scenario is playing with prospective students exactly as you’d expect it to.
It’s also already begun to undermine one of the most time-tested traditions for professional flight schools. When students graduate, they hang around and instruct for a while after that, building time, extending their college experience and even getting paid a little for the time building. With the coming 1500-hour mandate, however, these instructors are reluctant to leave, meaning that newly graduated students have nowhere to go to instruct, which further complicates the economics of the market.
The good news is that the rule doesn't take effect until August of 2013. So now is a great time to get a leg up, to get that ticket and hopefully catch on with a carrier. Just how history and the economy will affect that pathway is anybody's guess, but the potential for a great job after putting in some time moving on up through the ranks, is still very real.
And with the coming need for pilots, the market should respond at some point soon and start creating new pilots to fill those jobs, though the link between good pay and all the investment and hard work probably needs to be less tenuous not more. It’s a perfect time for the regionals to be proactive and raise starting pay to encourage their future pilots to starting training today.