In terms of careers in the aviation industry, all the attention has been focused on regional airlines and the hand-wringing as the supply of pilots is drying up. It’s no secret that this unprecedented phenomenon is being fueled by low starting salaries at the regional carriers, a wave of pilot retirements due to the “age 65” rule, a declining pilot population and the exodus of American pilots to other shores in search of cushy signing bonuses and generous salaries. But the real news is that while everybody argues about whether or not there’s a real pilot shortage, lots of aviation-related careers are hot and getting hotter.
It may be surprising to note that although some sectors of aviation seem to be floundering, others are enjoying explosive growth. We spoke with some of the top aviation universities and training academies in the country and examined which career paths are in demand, which ones have a bright future and where the hiring is happening in today’s aeronautics industry. The year 2014 might be when aviation careers regain the shine they once enjoyed.
Not everybody wants to fly an airplane. Many brilliant aeronautical minds prefer to do their work on the ground. Ben Rich was a gifted aeronautical engineer who was the second director of Lockheed’s Skunk Works after the famed Kelly Johnson. Rich is considered the “father” of stealth technology and led the development of the F-117, among many illustrious accomplishments, and he wasn’t a pilot. Another was Adolf Busemann, a German aerospace engineer who came to the United States after World War II and developed the swept-wing jet design at Langley. He later pioneered the concept of using ceramic tiles to dissipate heat on the space shuttle. The nonpilot list is long and impressive.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a bigger village to keep aircraft flying. The support and control tasks that relate to a flight range from maintenance crews to air traffic control, to avionics specialists and cargo loaders. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot of the famous Enola Gay B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, thus ending World War II, frequently attributed the success of that mission to his crew chief, Technical Sgt. Walter F. McCaleb, and his ground crew. Nonflying jobs are an essential part of aviation, and that’s where much growth is anticipated. The future is exciting.
Jobs in space operations are growing rapidly as the commercial use of space increases. Boeing’s CST-100 pictured here is America’s next manned space vehicle.
Top-rated aeronautical university Embry- Riddle tells us that A&P mechanics are being hired at a record pace, and that their maintenance technician courses are frequently over capacity. Boeing’s latest “Market Outlook (2013)” supports this trend and projects a favorable future for maintenance technicians of all specialties—especially mechanics. According to Boeing, 556,000 new technicians will be needed worldwide, just for the airline industry, between now and 2032. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job prospects will be best for mechanics who hold an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate. Salaries will depend on education, with both Embry-Riddle and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology offering some of the largest certificate two-year and four-year degree programs.
Another bright spot in aeronautical careers is that of air traffic controller. The FAA plans to hire some 12,000 air traffic controllers in the next 10 years, while 10,000 controllers will retire during the same period. The current workforce of approximately 15,000 controllers handles the 5,000 flights that are in the air at any given moment over the United States. ATC is more than just tower controllers and includes both air route traffic control center (ARTCC) controllers, as well as terminal radar approach control facilities (TRACON) controllers in 315 air traffic control facilities nationwide. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is taking shape and is changing how controllers work. This exciting move away from land-based control facilities to automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) control is attracting applicants who enjoy the challenge of new technology.
Specialized mechanics repair an Apache AH-64 in the field. Over 560,000 maintenance technicians of varying specialties will be needed by 2032.
In February of this year, the FAA announced new, more relaxed hiring rules for air traffic controllers. The controversial change no longer gives priority to ATC applicants going through a dedicated College Training Initiative (CTI) program. Aside from the basic citizenship, age and English language ability, candidates need only “have three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a Bachelor’s degree, or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years.” Successful applicants then go through the FAA Academy for specialized training.
As in years past, the demand for aerospace engineers far exceeds the supply. Engineering remains a lucrative career field, with salaries easily outpacing those of pilots. Mechanical engineers—especially those with a specialty in robotics or clean energy systems—are in high demand across the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places career growth at 7% over the next 10 years, with an average salary in the low six figures. In a similar vein, Embry-Riddle reports that computer engineering, software engineering and computer science are also very strong in all sectors of the industry, with demand increasing as aircraft become essentially “computer systems with propulsion and wings.”
the next 10 years.
With America’s renewed interest in space exploration and the expansion of the commercial use of space, an entire career field is burgeoning. Graduates will work in the areas of space policy, operations, regulation and certification, as well as space flight safety, space program training, management and planning. Embry-Riddle was the first university to introduce a major in Commercial Space Operations, though other institutions are working on offering space-oriented degrees. Though the discipline is still in its infancy, it’s projected to grow well into the next 20 years.
Several of the institutions we spoke with also reported that intelligence and security is a growing field, with companies actively recruiting graduates. This area focuses on careers in computer forensics, forensic biology, cyber security, foreign policy, homeland security and anti-terrorism.
The Florida Institute of Technology’s Aviation department reports a demand in several aviation specialties, including human factors analysts, airport managers, and aerospace marketing and management. Human factors analysis is dedicated to better understanding how humans can be integrated with technology and automation in the safest and most efficient way possible. Boeing has been a leader in this research area and has employed human factors analysts since the 1960s. Meanwhile, airport managers administer the country’s 14,000 airports and landing facilities, and according to industry salary site Avjobs (www.avjobs.com), their average yearly salary hovers around $90,000. Marketers and managers typically have four-year degrees and average $100,000 per year.
|Airline Employment Outlook Through 2032|
(New Pilots Needed by Region)
(New Technicians Needed by Region)
|Region||Number of pilots
needed by 2032
||Number of Technicians
needed by 2032
|Asia Pacific||192,300||Asia Pacific||215,300|
|North America||85,700||North America||97,900|
|Latin America||48,600||Middle East||53,100|
|Middle East||40,000||Latin America||47,600|
|TOTAL PILOTS NEEDED:||498,000||TOTAL TECHNICIANS NEEDED:||556,000|
|Statistics from 2013 Boeing “Market Outlook Report”|
If flying is in your blood, becoming a pilot is likely your goal. The media has been saturated of late with discussions about a looming pilot shortage, with each side of the argument presenting evidence to bolster their cause. Regardless of the outcome of these debates, the fact remains that air travel is growing around the world (and has never slowed, according to statistics), and there will always be a demand for pilots. Even with advances in technology, it’s not likely that the average person will get on board an airliner flown only by computers—at least in the immediate future. Pilots will likely remain in demand at least for the next two decades.
The truth is that flying jobs abound. The “golden ring” of the aviation hierarchy is the job of airline captain for one of the major carriers, and that remains a lucrative career, with salaries still reaching comfortably into six figures. It’s also true that regional airlines—something of a “farm team” for the majors—start first officers at $22,400 per year, according to the Airline Pilots Association International (ALPA). Many in the industry feel this is contributing to the current regional pilot shortage. Training costs are high for professional pilots, but there may be change in the air.
The industry is concerned enough that the U.S. Government has gotten involved. A study released in late February by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed that regional airlines are canceling routes and getting rid of aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. “Nearly all of the regional airlines that GAO interviewed reported difficulties finding sufficient numbers of qualified entry-level first officers,” the report said. The report also found one reason behind the shortage is that many pilots have gone to overseas carriers to follow enticing salaries, bonuses and other perks unavailable domestically.
As a result, the airline industry has upped their recruiting efforts and has considered offering pilots better incentives. The GAO report says that experts suggested the FAA could also take action by providing better financial aid or tweaking training requirements (like simulator hours). The FAA is currently reviewing the requirements to become a pilot.
Boeing’s often-cited “Market Outlook Report” forecasts the need for 460,000 new pilots in the next 20 years. Even taking into account more conservative federal estimates, airlines will need to hire an average of 1,900 to 4,500 pilots a year to meet growing travel demand. Considering the trickle of pilots coming from university aviation programs and the scarcity of military pilots (many who are staying in the military to take advantage of the unheard of $250,000 retainer bonus), a career as a pilot looks very bright.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are probably the hottest topic in aviation today. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will be integrated into the national airspace system (NAS) in 2015, injecting an estimated $13.6 billion into the economy, and creating a growing job market. A report titled “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) says that more than 100,000 new jobs will be created in the 10 years following the introduction of UAS. These jobs will encompass new manufacturing, sales, maintenance, operation and support positions with an economic impact of $82 billion by 2025. The development of UAVs is changing how we perceive pilot careers.
|Salaries in the aviation sector have been steadily improving, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Regional airline salaries, however, haven’t improved by much. The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) places the initial starting salary for regional airline first officers at $22,400. Still, there are signs that salaries for pilots will be forced to improve as regional carriers start to park aircraft, lacking pilots to fly them. Outside of the cockpit, demand is high and salaries are solid, with good benefits and lifestyle improvements.
Here’s a look at average salaries in several flying and nonflying areas of aviation. We have included three of the top sources for salary information, and you’ll note that each source varies considerably in their salary reports. An excellent and detailed professional pilot salary study was conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and published in June 2012. (A link to the study is provided below.)
Supporting roles for unmanned aerial vehicles are projected to grow rapidly. Operations centers like this will oversee the operation of commercial UAVs.
The University of North Dakota (UND) was the first top institution to offer a UAV or “drone” program to train pilots back in 2009. Today, it’s considered a frontline program and is led by Brig. Gen. Alan Palmer. UND’s program includes the only Predator Mission Aircrew Training System outside of the military. Today, the program requires drone pilots to hold commercial and instrument ratings. UND’s considerable investment in their UAV program has resulted in a blossoming program, growing from five students to over 120. Embry-Riddle and Kansas State University have since added similar programs, and a master’s degree program was launched by Embry-Riddle at their Daytona, Fla., campus.
Graduates have gone on to work for military contractors, earning annual salaries as high as $275,000, with averages between $84,000-$115,000, according to AUVSI. Several federal agencies are recruiting UAV pilots, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Government pay grades for UAV pilots range from GS11 to GS15 ($50,287-$129,517). Experts in the industry feel that with such lucrative salaries and the explosion of UAVs across the spectrum, the demand for these pilots will far outstrip the supply.
Corporate flying is the next choice for pilots not wanting to go the regional airline route. Studies of the business aircraft fleet show that there’s growing interest by corporations in wanting to own and operate their own aircraft for many reasons. Today, approximately 500 of the top American corporations operate flight departments of their own. This is expected to grow, as will the demand for pilots to fly these aircraft. Salaries vary widely, with an average first officer annual salary of $60,000-$70,000 on a small business jet, according to Avjobs.
Even if the airlines and corporate world aren’t your thing, pilot jobs are available in other areas of aviation. Around 2005, when the last wave of regional airline hiring happened, there was an alarming shortage of certified flight instructors. The airlines sucked flight schools dry while many said the industry would collapse without CFIs (rightly so). Though the situation never got that dire, it did illustrate the need for good instructors. Like many aviation jobs, the pay isn’t great, but the demand is there. There’s hope that growing demand will help to increase salaries for CFIs.
Other commercial flying careers include law enforcement, EMS, and Search and Rescue flying. These are specialized fields with varying demand and solid salaries at around $100,000 per year. Commercial pilots can do other flying including charter flights, firefighting, air taxi, aerial photography and aerial application, also known as crop dusting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s latest figures (2012), the median annual wage for commercial pilots was $73,280.
Our aviation industry is in a state of change that hasn’t been seen since the golden days of flying. The confluence of rapidly emerging technology, advances in air traffic control, changes in airline training, the emergence of UAVs, the commercial use of space and the changing pilot population has created both upheaval and an exciting new turn in aviation. Like the days when the first DC-3s graced the skies and the first Piper Cubs began filling the countless airports across the country, ours is the dawn of a new age in aerospace. The future isn’t yet written, but an aviation career will certainly place you in the front seat of what will undoubtedly be a wild ride.
|The proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) got another boost in December 2013, when the FAA announced the six states that are officially designated as test sites for UAV development. This is a key step in the expansion of commercial use of UAVs (sometimes called “drones”) in the skies above America.
Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia were selected to host the research sites for UAV technology. Because the FAA is looking to introduce commercial drones into U.S. airspace in the safest way possible, these states were chosen for their climate, air traffic volume and geography.
To date, UAVs have been used mainly by the military, but private industry is chomping at the bit to get into a business area that promises huge economic windfalls for early adopters. Everyone from law enforcement to farmers is looking to use drones for commercial purposes. The University of North Dakota was the first to offer a UAV program, and many more universities have launched similar programs. Though the FAA doesn’t currently allow the use of commercial drones, plans are in place to open up the national airspace system (NAS) to them by late 2015.
Once the genie is let out of the bottle, the FAA projects that some 7,500 commercial drones could be operating in our skies within five years of getting access to the NAS. Conservatives and liberals alike have expressed deep concerns that commercial drones will transform our country into a “spy state” that snoops in on the privacy of its citizens and watches our every move. In reaction, legislators are busily creating bills that will limit the autonomy of commercial UAVs and protect the citizenry from unauthorized privacy violations, but criticism is building. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is watching the development of UAVs closely.
On the career front, the UAV explosion promises hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the FAA’s test site announcement has those six states overjoyed at the prospect of injecting their economies with badly needed dollars from UAV operations. In addition to UAV pilots, there will be a myriad of support roles and facilities, all of which could mean 70,000 new jobs, according to one industry report.
Though most UAVs are used for military purposes today, the future could put commercial drones in industries that range from fighting forest fires, scanning crops and scientific measurement. Drones can be anything from a one-foot-long helicopter to an aircraft the size of a Cessna 172, with everything in between. UAV pilots can easily earn $120,000 per year and up, with many working for private contractors today. As the industry expands in the coming years, projections indicate that UAV pilots will be in high demand. Outside of passenger transportation, the next 15 years will be the era where UAVs become commonplace in our skies. Like them or not, they’re here to stay.