In a recent AIN Roundtable, Kerry Lynch invited business aviation thought leaders to address workforce issues. What’s happening now? How can we restore the pipeline of the next-generation workers? And what needs to be done for the future.

AIN Roundtable Participants:

AIN Roundtable Discussion

On Overarching Issues Surrounding Workforce

Katie Johnson: The real issue boils down to, there’s simply not enough of the workforce available, which is magnified by a robust demand for talent. It’s important we remember that this is not something that just developed post-Covid. It’s been a lingering challenge that started well before the pandemic.

I think that the issue with not just having enough talent is maybe better stated as a lack of experienced aircraft maintenance technicians. There’s a good movement we’re seeing within the FAA certifying more mechanics than what we’ve seen in the past. But there’s still that skills gap.

The newer aircraft are more modern, they have different systems, and they’re more complex. Some of those skills are just not learned during the course of going to college and getting your license.

Tonya Sudduth: I’m seeing the same thing, in particular, with the A&P technician. That is a key area of challenge for us. It’s something we’ve seen coming as an industry. We’ve had many people start to transition into the retirement phase. Then we had the pandemic, which created many more labor shortages. At the same time, we had increased demand in our industry.

It seems like one of the biggest challenges we have right now is that experience gap. We have several employees that I would say have about 20 or more years of experience, and we have several employees that I would say are brand new, recently certified as an A&P. It’s that in-between and trying to figure out and develop strategies to try to help mitigate that skills gap.

Sheryl Barden: It is a very competitive world right now. And on the pilot side, we have just been through and are now maybe having a little bit of a slowdown in what was a perfect storm that has been coming for a long time.

Our airlines are trying to solve this through very high compensation, which has put incredible pressure on our flight departments. There’s incredible pressure not only on compensation but also on work-life balance or work-life integration.

What we see is our Part 91 individual operators are having to increase compensation and increase headcount in order to retain talent. And then, finding new talent is a real challenge.

We used to find much of our new talent either coming out of the military or coming out of the regional carriers because they were not able to move up into [airline] pipeline. Those people are going up into the [airline] pipeline so fast now… that we don’t have that anymore. Where are we going to have the 35-year-old? Where’s the 30-year-old entering our marketplace today? And where is he or she as a pilot coming from?

Melissa Fitzgerald-Drew: We are seeing a limited talent pool amongst all professionals, maintenance technicians, pilots, but also the overhead staff. We’re looking into different ways to bridge the gap between new and experienced professionals and what we consider a qualified technician or a qualified pilot who would be entering the workforce.

Looking into the future, about 30 percent of our overall professionals within our company will be retiring in the next five to ten years. So, the problems are continuing to increase, and the talent pool is continuing to be limited. About 15 percent of our pilots are in that group where they will be exiting the industry in about five to ten years.

 We need to look at resources to see where we can increase the [number of] young professionals that are in maybe the regionals or military organizations that can come into our industry. It’s how we get the experience, where our owners will consider them to be experienced enough to fly their heavy jets.

[The issue is] having the experienced applicants. We hired about 280 pilots in the past two years alone. Now, we’re finding that the talent pool that’s qualified—what we consider qualified, around 4,000 hours and maybe 10 years of corporate aviation experience would be what most aircraft owners are looking for these days—and that talent pool is extremely limited.

So, we are getting a lot of applicants who have around 2,000 hours or 1,000 hours trying to enter the industry, and unfortunately, for a company like Solairus, where the majority of our 330 aircraft are heavy aircraft, the requirements just aren’t there.

It’s an increasing issue, and it’s both on the pilot front and the technician front.

On What’s Happening with the Pipeline

Katie Johnson:  We are actually seeing a slight uptick in licensed technicians becoming available. What I would say is it’s certainly not enough to fill the pipeline. It is really interesting to see that the colleges are starting to have more graduates. We’re starting to see more interest in students going into that career.

We’re seeing good momentum but we need to realize that momentum generated because we all started talking about this problem several years ago. And so, we just need to make sure as an industry that we don’t feel good that the problem is solved because we’ve seen maybe 2 percent more technicians becoming certified in the past year.

We all need to continue to find out how are we generating this interest and what can we as industry employers, with other associations, and the educational systems do to continue generating that interest. Because otherwise we’re going to rally around and feel…good, and then all of a sudden the enrollments are going to back down and we’re not going to see the pipeline.

And like Melissa mentioned with the pilots, we’re also not seeing that people are coming out of the schools with that experience level. Some of the interesting data points that I saw recently with the Aviation Technician Education Council is that [with] some of the newer licensed mechanics …we’re seeing an increase in those coming from the military.

We do see a lot of value there. [It brings] qualified talent, they do have experience, we just need to help them apply that in business aviation.

On How the Limited Talent Pool Affects Industry Businesses and Approach to Hiring

Sheryl Barden:  Compensation is getting to a place that is almost unsustainable in the corporate environment. Probably one of the hardest things that an organization is dealing with today is making sure that there is that work-life balance, meaning we’ve got some hard days off.

I think some of the paradigms that have been part of business aviation for years are changing rapidly. If leadership in the flight department isn’t changing and embracing those changes and sticking with the old way, then that’s going to be an organization that is going to have a very difficult time and probably have a revolving door.

When we have people who come to us and say, “No, we don’t offer any hard days off. You’re on 24/7 call,” We’re like, “You’re not competitive. I can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat for you because of that. This is what you must do in order to have the talent there.”

The worst thing ever is to say to the CEO, “I’m sorry, we can’t go because we don’t have enough crew to staff your trip.” [Clients have] pushed and pushed in order to [crew those trips]. They’ve pushed their employees, their cockpit crew, and their cabin crew, and they get to a point where when they have been pushed too much. Somebody says uncle somewhere along the way and votes with their feet. Then you’ve got the situation of how to replace them.

Replacing people has been another critical shift. Four or five years ago, pre-pandemic, our clients were hiring for a fit and training for skill. Then during the pandemic, we could not get training slots. We ended up hiring that type-rated pilot, and the whole key was to find somebody who could plug into my Challenger or whatever it is. From that, we could see some fallout in our flight departments because did we hire the right person or did we hire the typed person?

Katie Johnson: It’s an interesting point. West Star has recently started to embrace more of the hiring for personality fit and training for the specific experience. Sometimes when you do find that highly experienced person, that experience is overshadowed by some of the behaviors that they bring.

We’ve educated our managers that it’s great to see some of the inexperienced talent, but they do get a little hesitant about hiring too many inexperienced people. We’ve been able to help them overcome that by helping them to see that personality and fit really are defining some of those characteristics that we’re looking for. What we’ve seen is that when we hire for the right behavioral attributes, they’re actually soaking up and learning more of the skills.

On the work-life integration in the Part 145 environment, we too have seen that same challenge. We are working with our managers to help them think differently and think about whether somebody wants to work three days a week or four days a week. We still benefit from getting the hours and their time. Let’s be open to thinking about alternative work schedules because that’s part of what is helping us attract new people into the industry.

Melissa Fitzgerald-Drew:  One of our best resources for attracting talent is our employee referral program. A lot of [our recruitment] is based on education, ensuring that not only the crew members understand the quality of life that each [of our] flight department [clients] provides but the aircraft owner as well—educating our clients on retention.

There is more [understanding among aircraft owners] now. They all talk to each other…and bounce ideas or problems that they’re having with their flight department.

I agree that a lot of owners and corporations now are concerned with where the salaries are headed. Moving forward, we’re just trying to come up with alternative solutions for compensation. But we spend a great deal of time early on educating aircraft owners on what’s important for pilots to retain them.

On Filling the Pipeline

Tonya Sudduth: Some of the things that we’ve done at Bombardier is we have teamed with the U.S. Department of Defense on the SkillBridge program. This is a pretty cool program. It gives us access to experienced military technicians, and we’re able then to help them transition into civilian positions on our line.

Another thing that we’ve done is we’ve teamed with Captain Barrington Irving. He’s our talent ambassador. He’s done a great job of generating that interest in STEM at very young ages as well, and he’s working to help with training programs for our A&P programs.

We launched the first state of Kansas registered A&P technician program here in Wichita in collaboration with WSU Tech, Wichita State University. It is set up to where we are extending offers to the mechanics on day one. They are fully paid by Bombardier, they spend a day or two in the classroom, and the rest of the time they’re onsite. It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re super excited about it and are very excited to see what the future holds [with] more of these types of programs.

Katie Johnson: We are very similar to Bombardier. We’ve grown our footprint across the U.S., opened new hangers and started new greenfield sites. My 10-year career at West Star has really been about strategically building for the future that we know we’re going to need.

We’ve started going back years ago with formalizing our apprenticeship program with the Department of Labor.

But we looked at it and said, “Ok, what we’ve done in the past is great, but it’s not necessarily going close the talent gap in the future.” That’s what led us to deepen our relationships with not only industry but also partnering with our community.

That’s how we ended up creating, West Star Aviation Academy, which is where we went to market and recruited people who have a mechanical aptitude and the right behavioral attributes to be successful as a mechanic. We hired them as a full-time employee to go to school for seven months, and this school is on-site at West Star. It is in full partnership with Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC).

 What happens is we’ve expanded our access to getting licensed mechanics by simply removing the barriers to getting into the program by not having to work full time and go to school full time. We pay them a living wage, they earn benefits. We also pay the cost of the tuition for SWIC as well. And then to deepen that skills, we spend the last several weeks of the academy where we actually are in a learning environment that is not part of our active hangar.

We have a dedicated aircraft, we have all of our systems, our work order management systems, our forms, our parts, and our procedures to where the students can now apply everything they’ve learned and work in a controlled environment to apply all their skills before they graduate from the academy test with the FAA and obtain their airframe license.

And now they go into the workforce to begin working in that active environment, and they have that familiarity with not only the knowledge but also the skills. And then on the job, they continue to get training and are supported to go on and obtain their powerplant license as well.

A key part of our future growth is just trying to understand some of the barriers that are preventing more people from going into college and also understanding some of the the pain points that the colleges have had. Not all students who enroll are graduating because some financial constraints preclude them.

What we can do is unite with the industry associations and try to make this a sustainable model as we look for the future.

On the Responsibility of Business Aviation to Collectively Promote Careers

Sheryl Barden: This has been a big frustration for me for a very long time. When you look at who we are now competing against for talent—United, UPS, FedEx—all of these big organizations recruit huge numbers of pilots and technicians at flight attendants every single year. Our business aviation groups like our Part 91 flight departments, they might recruit a pilot every five years. We are a group of lots of smaller hiring entities in relation to who we’re competing against for talent. And, we have no unified voice.

Everything that I believe we do is on a grassroots basis, even with what Bombardier might be doing and some of these others. How can we compete with United, with Delta, with Southwest?

I’ve always been an advocate, that we need a true umbrella program to recruit and compete and tell the business aviation, general aviation story in a unified way across our country. And we don’t have that.

We have lots of folks doing their own little thing and no coordinated effort or coordinated message.  I might go to talk to Embry-Riddle and give one message and then Melissa might go to Embry-Riddle and she has another message.

I believe it’s an industry-wide [responsibility]. It goes to all of the organizations to bring together some sort of a mechanism to promote the greater good of why it’s great to be a part of business aviation and general aviation.

Melissa Fitzgerald-Drew: The most important thing we could do right now as an industry is go into these A&P schools and colleges and educate professionals on what business aviation is.

Oftentimes, when college students or people are in an A&P school, they don’t actually know what business aviation is.

I think the airlines do a really good job of educating them where they can and get a contract six months prior to them graduating from school. And it’s a sure thing and a known salary, where we don’t have the ability to do that.

I think as an industry, we should come up with better solutions for younger talent coming out of these schools, bridge programs, where management companies can tap into those resources.

I would say that we should even be starting with a high school. Ten years from now, our prospective talent is still in high school.

Sheryl Barden: I agree, especially on educating our high school guidance counselors. I think many times when young people go to their guidance counselor and say I want to be in aviation, especially a woman who says I want to be a pilot, they get directed elsewhere because that guidance counselor knows nothing and or knows very little.

There are some wonderful ones that do [direct toward aviation], and we’ve got some of these wonderful aviation academies and aviation high schools. But then again, in those aviation high schools, everything is airline, airline, airline.

[Going back to] the fact that we need an experienced pilot with 4,000 hours. Where do you get that time? Just recently I was working with a young pilot who is almost at 3,000 hours and works for a management company. If you’re flying just 300 hours a year, it takes three-plus years to build 1,000 hours, and 300 is a heck of a lot of hours for a Part 91 pilot to be flying.

I think we’ve got also some paradigm changes that have to be made around training because we can see the military train fantastic pilots who come out without 3,000 hours. The military pilots are trained to an exceptional level, and they are flying top brass, the CEOs of the military, at less than 1,000 hours.

Some of our flight departments are really starting to tackle this. They’re starting to bring on pilots earlier, but it takes an incredible amount of work for both the pilot and the organization. It is not the solution, but it’s one of the potential solutions. We hope that all of those young pilots coming in or young maintenance people coming in then become evangelical about our industry and attract their colleagues and friends.

Katie Johnson: I definitely agree this has really got to be a collaborative approach. West Star has started that through deepening our partnerships with the Aviation Technician Education Council and Choose Aerospace [nonprofit collaboration dedicated to developing technicians].

How do we get to the high school guidance counselors and educate them? That’s one of the things where West Star has been partnering, not just with Choose Aerospace, but also with our local community—K through 12 educators.

We presented to a group of educators a few months ago about what Choose Aerospace offers, which is a ready-to-go aviation maintenance general education, with 500 hours that can be taught in the high school environment. It’s virtual reality/augmented reality. It’s developed by educators, within the industry, and it’s designed to help people who don’t know about aviation to be able to teach it. They have teacher kits. They have teacher workshops.

They have truly thought of every angle that would need to be addressed to help somebody who’s not an aviation expert, be able to learn, promote, and teach the program.

What that does is create more awareness, and it creates a stronger pipeline. Some of the A&P schools are starting to recognize that they can build on the Choose Aerospace program, and the students that graduate high school can now test for their generals, start into an A&P program, and already have 10 weeks of the program completed. West Star has benefited by partnering with Choose Aerospace to not only help our communities. We also incorporated the Choose Aerospace curriculum into our internal West Star Academy model. As we think of this more broadly, we want to get the community involved. We want to also show them that there is a direct path from high school to work.

Tonya Sudduth: I think so much of the work that we have to do is to tell our story and I agree it’s a collective effort as an industry to tell that story. NBAA is making huge progress in doing that from an industry standpoint, but of course, we all have work to do, right?

All of us have to come to the table and tell that story. Captain Barrington Irving came in to support our Safety Standdown and then while he was here, he went and visited a local middle school and presented to around 600 students. The school had a chance to excite the audience about this industry. Sitting in that audience, I watched those kids jump out of their seats with questions. We need so much more of that. We need to engage them very young. We need to get them excited about it. I think this is absolutely imperative.

On Retention

Tonya Sudduth: From a retention standpoint, I think one of the things that’s super important is showing your employees that you are invested in their career, being able to show a path of progression, being able to show the steps that they can take to continue to evolve and to grow in their own career. We’ve been spending quite a bit of energy around that, especially in a field like the technicians that’s incredibly competitive right now. You know, step one, you come in and you learn this; step two, step three, step four—so that they can see that they’re going to continue to grow and learn in their career with the company.

Katie Johnson: That’s exactly what West Star is doing. We found that what happens is the younger technicians go to high school, go to college, and have all the modules laid out: I need to do all these things and then I’m going to get to graduate and then they come into the workforce. And they’re like, “I want to be the master mechanic.”

We just needed to provide that clarity so they truly understand. There is a pathway, here are the things you need to learn, and sometimes you don’t just get to do a task once and you’re proficient.

Part of what we’ve recently done is determining that somebody’s proficiency level sometimes can be subjective. What we are piloting right now is giving technicians the opportunity to test to prove they are proficient as a way to try to remove some of the subjectivity. That certainly has helped West Star.

[Also], it’s not always just pay and benefits. I think in this industry, everybody is doing the same. A couple of years ago, West Star really looked at how are we treating our employees. We have invested in improving the leadership abilities of our management team, helping them to realize that people today maybe have different expectations on communication, feedback, and recognition. Sometimes people just want to know if you see them.

We’re also investing in our employees’ leadership abilities—one of the best ways to retain your people and to show them they have the ability to grow through internal mobility. So last year, we launched our first emerging leader program. Our managers are embracing that because, as we continue to expand, we need more leaders but people don’t have the leadership skills.

Melissa Fitzgerald-Drew: So much of the focus in aviation has been on the pilot and staffing front, but [retention] is universal to the whole industry right now. We’ve put in place an Atlas program, which is a leadership development program at Solairus for middle-level managers to ensure that they can progress their careers to meet that executive level in the future. Investing in their career and showing them that we’re investing is vital to retaining professionals.

We have a program which we refer to as moving above the cabin that gives a clear pathway for crew members so they can move into another type of aircraft or up into a leadership program.

We talk a lot about replacement value and replacement cost when it comes to crew members because there is a cost associated with having high attrition within a flight department.

We’re trying to put avenues in place and then promote those within our organization so people know that there’s a pathway forward to continue their career within Solairus.

The Bottom Line

Tonya Sudduth: We’ve all seen significant labor shortages. It required us all to react very quickly. I think it’s important as we react quickly that we focus not only on those who are just ready to be A&P technicians, but also on the industry trying to generate that interest with all the stakeholders and make sure we get that story out there around business aviation and the great things that we have to offer to these kids.

Collaborations with other people in the industry are huge. For instance, the SkillBridge not only benefits us because we get that labor in the doors with some experience, but it also benefits our military. It gives them a chance to liaise over to the business aviation side from the military side. I’m super proud of the work that we’re doing there and of the apprenticeship and the relationship that we have with Barrington Irving.

We’re very excited for the future to see how these collaborations continue to grow and the opportunities continue to expand as we go forward.

Sheryl Barden: I would wrap this up with the word culture. This is one of the things that API is shifting with our clients—not just to work on talent identification, but on talent retention through culture.

Why do people leave jobs [for reasons other] than compensation? It is culture and leadership. People leave because the culture is not healthy or they are not aligned with the culture, people leave because the leadership is not leading. If compensation is not exactly where it needs to be, then you’ve got a perfect storm of folks going.

We have to put our programs together to meet the expectations of the next generation. And as much as we don’t want to (perhaps) make those changes because we didn’t do it that way, we certainly need to make those changes if we’re going to retain. And the key is retention.

The cost of turnover is huge.

Melissa Fitzgerald-Drew:  I think the greatest thing that we can do is have a collaborative front, educating young professionals, providing them pathways to enter our industry, and providing them a pathway to succeed and be recognized. It’s vital to our industry as a whole—not just on the pilot and main front, but on the leadership front—to ensure that we are investing in people’s careers and finding them a way to enter the industry and be successful.

Katie Johnson: It boils down to three things: We have to keep our momentum going that we’ve seen with more awareness, more enrollment, and more licensed mechanics coming online; we have to make sure that we are helping the industry and our educators sustain that interest; and we also have to continue to focus on how we can accelerate the skills that these new technicians need and we have more of that talent gap closed.

If we do those things, it becomes that circle that helps us as an overall industry sustain a better pipeline of talent in the future.

The original article appeared in Aviation International News magazine.

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