Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Outside The Cockpit

A look at 10 nonflying careers

3. Space Operations is somewhat akin to Air Traffic Control, though usually without the drama—once a satellite is in orbit, it takes a major effort to bring it down. Entry-level jobs are available in the field for spacecraft (or satellite) controllers, who monitor spacecraft on-orbit 24 hours a day. This involves shift work (often on a rotating schedule). Past experience from the military, NASA, FAA Air Traffic Control or civil nuclear power helps, as does a college degree in engineering or physical sciences. With additional education, controllers can move up to positions as Mission Analysts (involved anytime a change is expected or observed in a spacecraft orbit) or Satellite Engineers (who troubleshoot problems). Steve Shaffer, who until recently was in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) space operations center, estimates that "a few thousand" people are employed in space operations—mainly in private industry. At NOAA, the pay for controllers starts at $34,000, and can rise to $97,000 with experience—and with controllers required to cover 24 hours a day, overtime and holiday pay means that most controllers can expect to add about 20% to those figures.

4. Airline Dispatchers share responsibility with the captain for the safety of U.S. scheduled airline flights, and are involved in many aspects of flight planning and operation. They're required to pass an examination comparable in most respects to that required for the Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, and hours for dispatchers are limited by federal regulations. According to Airline Dispatcher's Federation President Joseph Miceli, a 23- year veteran of United Airlines, employment in the field is "steady" at "about 5,000" licensed dispatchers in the U.S. He's encouraged by the news that airlines continued to hire dispatchers last year despite mergers, and expects hiring to increase this year. Miceli told us that starting salaries vary from $20,000-$40,000 for new hires at regional airlines, while "the majors start at $50,000, and can go to six figures with experience."

5. Engineers design every aerospace vehicle (and equipment that goes into them). These professional jobs require a four-year bachelor's degree in engineering or one of the physical sciences as a bare minimum to enter the field. Most engineers work a regular 40-hour week, but some work on rotating shifts, and others work odd hours when required. The most recent BLS data shows almost 90,000 engineers of all types employed in aerospace product-and-parts manufacturing—predicted to increase by 4% this decade—at an average salary over $56,000, rising to six figures with additional education and experience. Paul Kostek, a distinguished lecturer for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is upbeat about the field: "Like the rest of the economy, we're seeing slow, steady growth for engineers. The demand for unmanned vehicles continues to grow and provide opportunities in both the military and civilian market. We're seeing some interesting opportunities appear outside the US. This is providing opportunities for suppliers (avionics, engines, navigation) that will be a plus for engineers. And the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule opens a new market for engineers—commercial space development."
A senior controller we spoke to some time ago described his job at the FAA's Fort Worth Center as "like playing THREE-DIMENSIONAL chess games every day for 30 years, and never losing a game."
6. Aviation/Airport Managers fill a variety of roles focused on the business side of aviation, according to University of North Dakota Professor Kim Kenville, who says this field is ideal for those with strong people skills: "This isn't a job for an introvert—you have to deal with unhappy people." The job generally requires a four-year degree, according to Kenville, who told us that entry-level pay for new managers has risen to around $40,000 (higher at consultancies), and can easily increase to six figures with experience. She says the field is growing slowly due to the state of the economy. Students graduating from UND's aviation management track currently need "around six months" to find a permanent position, and Kenville believes that's typical. The odds can be improved by starting with an internship, which she called "readily available," and typically pays $10-$15 per hour. Kenville told us that sponsoring organizations work hard to find permanent jobs for interns. On the whole, she's upbeat about the field: "Airports that are city controlled are taking hits, but other than that, by and large the airport world is doing well."

7. Meteorologists and Atmospheric Scientists forecast the weather—a matter of grave concern to pilots. Minimum qualifications include a four-year science or engineering degree, but an advanced degree is highly desirable. Operational meteorologists (including U.S. Weather Service teams collocated with FAA regional traffic control centers) work round-the-clock shifts, while long-range forecasters and those involved in atmospheric research work regular office hours. According to the BLS, there are approximately 9,400 meteorologists and atmospheric scientists employed in the U.S., with a median annual over $80,000. About one-third are employed by the federal government (mainly the National Weather Service). The BLS expects the field to grow by about 15% in this decade, with most new jobs coming from the private sector. Professor Eugene Takle of Iowa State University agrees with the BLS projections: "Most of our graduate students take jobs in DOE or NOAA outside the area of forecasting. The private sector exhibits a growing need for meteorologists, primarily wind-energy forecasting. But this area is highly volatile and linked to the economy (and, for the wind industry, to public policy on tax incentives for renewable energy)."


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