Comment: Are our kids falling out of love with careers in aviation?

written by australianaviation.com.au | August 6, 2012
The first Aviation and Aerospace Skills Summit was held in Melbourne last week.

by Jim Carden

As a boy on a rare flight international flight with the family years ago, I vividly recall a cabin crew member asking if I wanted to have a peek in the cockpit.

Having boarded the plane, wide-eyed with excitement, I had stolen a glimpse at that dazzling array of instruments, levers and buttons that would inform the cockpit design of my fantasy plane made up of pillows, chairs and tables in the living room.

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Somewhere high above outback Australia that day, in cockpit of a Qantas Boeing 707, I was — like millions of boys and girls around the world — captured by the magic of aviation.

Decades later, the fascination remains.

But things have changed. Aviation no longer seems to have captured the imaginations of our kids the way it once did.

Somehow, the glamour and prestige of our industry has waned over the years, perhaps because we have gone from being a “modern miracle” to a necessary economic function — a mature industry and mode of travel that is now taken for granted.

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Perhaps that is why we have a looming crisis of skills and capacity in an industry that used to rate among school children’s top three career choices 20 or 30 years ago. Once upon a time, every kid wanted to be a pilot, or a rocket scientist, but now careers advisors will tell you it barely rates a mention at career nights.

And perhaps that is why industry leaders are now calling for a national education campaign to boost flagging interest in careers in  aviation and aerospace to overcome a skills deficit that is threatening the very viability of Australian industry.

It could be argued that, as an industry, we have dined out on our fading glamour a bit too long, and relied too heavily on the “the fascination of flight”. The industry now has to fight for what has become a contestable human resource pool with a range of other better paid, higher-profile industries.

Speakers at the first Aviation and Aerospace Skills Summit held in Melbourne recently blamed the shortages of pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers and other professionals on competition from “better-marketed” careers, the lure of the resources sector, the perception of a local industry in its dying days, and the rise of jobs that require the same skill sets in engineering, manufacturing and technology.

While there is no doubt an element of nostalgia for the past, there is nevertheless a sense that our industry is less accessible, more regulated and looks like “just another job”. Of course, we will never go back to bringing kids into the cockpit mid-flight, but we do have to find ways to raise the profile of a sector that faces major growth, and requires a sustained pipeline of skilled workers to fulfil this growth.

The Skills Summit was, interestingly, the first time the broad range of aviation and aerospace stakeholders had collectively addressed a challenge that was confronting us all.

It heard, on the one hand, heady projections that forecast strong long-term growth, despite the likelihood of sustained economic pressures from Europe and a flat American economy. All speakers cited the task of attracting, training and retaining good people as among their top three challenges – a problem compounded by the limited size of the Australian market and population, a strong Australian dollar, and the ubiquitous impact of the mining boom on retention rates.

Australian industry is also facing an historic growth in the capacity of our Asian neighbours to undertake the manufacturing, research and maintenance activities that Australia has traditionally owned, and when this capability reaches critical mass, there is going to be a major drain on our limited skills base.

As Australia’s peak body for aviation and aerospace, we were hugely encouraged by the collegiate approach to this first Skills Summit, which was the first time such a wide range of aviation and aerospace players had come together to find common ground.

With representatives from four states, the federal government and New Zealand, and the big players like Boeing, Airbus, Virgin and Qantas, this is clearly an issue of importance.

And while there is no silver bullet, the Summit augurs well for an industry-wide approach to the problem – and indeed other challenges facing our sector. This has to be a conversation that is sustained and the solutions have to be long-term, and A/AA is pleased to be playing its part in driving that conversation.

Jim Carden is the Chief Executive of Aviation/Aerospace Australia. 

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19 Comments

  • George Canciani

    says:

    Might be coincidence, but could it be that interest in aviation among young people diminished at the same time as the closure of observation decks at most of our major airports?
    To see, hear and smell the presence of aeroplanes used to be addictive in a positive sense.
    Reasons for the closure of the observation decks always seem to revolve around security and/or cost. Maybe this is the price the aviation industry is now paying.
    Just my two cents (or bobs) worth from a frustrated aviation enthusiast.

  • Interesting...

    says:

    There has been talk of a skills shortage in the aviation industry for countless years now. Looks like finally people are starting to worry.

    I believe people are not interested in this industry because of a number of reasons. From a pilots point of view these are:
    1. It’s very expensive to obtain a commercial pilots license and an instrument rating.
    2. There is no guarantee that you will make it to an airline to earn the “big bucks”. From the people in my university course there are only about 5 flying for an airline.
    3. The remuneration in GA is very poor.
    4. The remuneration and benifits in airlines have decreased. A captain 10 – 15 years ago on an aircraft in the 100 seat category would be earning around the low 200k mark annually. Compare that to now, captains are on about 150-160k. That is a massive reduction!!!
    5. Airlines now want you to pay for your endorsement for the aircraft type that you will be flying. So that is another 30k to pay for the privilege of having a job.
    6. You have to do an annual medical to ensure you are fit to hold your pilots license.
    7. There is ongoing study and testing that will be required for the duration of your career.

    I’m not surprised we aren’t attracting people to our industry. There are many other jobs and industries out that they pay better and are not nearly as demanding.

    I will be doing everything in my power to stop my kids from starting a career in aviation. I just think that they deserve better and can do better.

  • Steven Kilpatrick

    says:

    The Industry should work with the likes of the Australian Air League that promote aviation in kids aged between 8 – 18. They are involved with everything to do with aviation but have to raise the funds to keep squadrons going with all officers being volunteers. It’s had these days just to get officers let alone kids!

  • Luke

    says:

    The only upside of this for existing pilots might be the increase in wages that might result from the lack of supply of pilots to the workforce. Airlines would have to increase their wages in order to attract the ever diminishing pool of qualified pilots.

    The risk of this diminished selection pool is that of a drop in recruiting standards which cannot be allowed to happen. I think in light of this CASA needs to put a big emphasis on the standards of pilots.

    Not only that but I’ve read a number of accident investigations involving pilot’s with high levels of stress caused by financial stress. Surely as this creates a safety issue, CASA should have a direct control of minimum financial reimbursement for pilots. Ensuring that pilot’s are payed as professionals with greater appreciation for the high barrier to entry will increase the standard of pilot recruited and decrease the level of stress these pilots feel.

  • DR

    says:

    Amen to the above comment. After spending $70k on a CPL, MECIR & turbine rating for a job I started training on, the $100/day, 4 days a week wasn’t going to support my family. Back to my old job with better prospects. Do I still dream of flying? Only every day! Is it going to be a reality, not if I want to subject my wife and children to abject poverty for the next 5 years or so.

  • Dane

    says:

    I looked at doing an apprenticeship with Forstaff Aviation at Avalon in 2007. Coincidentally, that year Qantas had a take over bid from an American company (their name escapes me) and no apprenticeships were offered that year. In hindsight, am glad I didn’t pursue that career as there is no stability in our aviation industry, especially in maintenance and ground staff roles. Australia is no longer attractive for aviation jobs in my eyes. Pilots can get better perks with overseas airlines like Emrites and maintenance is cheaper and quicker overseas. Maintainers here are well under valued for what they do and are paid too little for the critical role they have in ensuring planes stay in the air. Airlines have to offer better salaries and then the industry will be attractive to today’s youth.

  • The Lecturer

    says:

    Interesting to note that most of the emphasis, in both the article itself and the comments that followed, related to a shortage of pilots. Need I remind folks that AME’s – licensed and non-licensed – are not only just as critical to the future of aviation, but more of them are required in the years to come (according to the latest forecast by Boeing and other reputable sources),both locally and globally.

    Industry could also help itself in this regard by taking on more Aeroskills apprentices each year. More importantly, it could not only support but take an active role in growing the AME labour force by being more supportive (and, it must be said, getting itself better informed) of the competency based training and assessment process that underpins the new Part 66 licensing system recently introduced by CASA.

    Remember, without apprentices, the aviation industry will run out of maintainers, and without maintainers, pilots are pedestrians.

  • SM

    says:

    I did do my graduation in Aviation Management with the student pilots a few years ago. What I have noticed is that there is also another side to it. The hard work involved and the passion to learn science subjects have diminished. And the ones who has scaled the hard yards is treated like the ‘academics’ the industry do not need. Honestly!! look around there is nothing more that the industry needs than knowledgeable professionals to replace the ageing workforce!!

    Also, the fascination in aviation careers, decades ago, was the high flier status attached to the aviation career. The pilots/engineers/atco and other aviation tech professionals was in a class of their own with so many perks attached to the job.

    For me personally, I would have loved to be a pilot but found it too expensive. It is sad to see not just the skills but the background knowledge that was seen in the earlier days is disappearing as well. But I do wish we will see more smart, passionate and ‘skilled’ aviation professionals in the coming years.

  • Baldy

    says:

    As a defence force apprentice who has just finished an AME-Mechanical Cert IV, there is no incentive to going into civil aviation as my prospects are lower wages and no job security. I can tell you that no one is leaving a SQN for a civilian aviation job; everyone I know is off to the mines for some real money.

    What do you do when your passion has no reward?

  • random

    says:

    Many points in common with “Interesting” and a few more…..

    1. You can’t get into the cockpit any more…. just to take a peek, or even sit in for a sector…. Bin Laden and his cronies have something to answer for.
    2. East-West Airlines Fantasy Flights no longer exist…. (and neither does the airline)…. a shame because both were eminently affordable in the days before rampant discounting (and you often got to sit in the cockpit – the crew would sometimes even seek you out).
    3. Relentless corporatism has changed aviation forever. Little did Freddie Laker realise that his trend would also see the death of aviation’s positive “mystique” – which delivered something exciting about aviation as a career and also as a passenger experience. The rush towards egalitarianism killed a lot of good things and that positive mystique was quite possibly the most important of them.
    4. The day that airlines decided training aircrew “in-house” was an unnecessary financial burden was a sad day. Instead they decided to cancel cadetship schemes, limit them to airline family members, or place a hefty bonded cost on the individual, who in most cases was already up to their eyeballs in debt for their flying to that point! Only now that the airlines are desperate for staff are they trying to change it back.
    5. For years, it was impossible to get study assistance for industry specific flying training or flying studies.
    6. Aircrew remuneration for new contracts is nothing enticing, and is going backwards every year compared to other professions. The pay and conditions have become more difficult, but the responsibility and media headlines if it all goes wrong haven’t changed – they may even be worse in the modern media. Hard to believe turbo-prop aircrew make so little ($50-75K is plain awful) when they still have 30+ peoples’ lives in their hands.
    7. Bob Hawke started the rot when he denounced aircrew as “bus drivers”….. conveniently forgetting that it’s “hard” to park your plane by the nearest cloud and take a moment when it’s all going wrong.
    8. The Qantas conundrum….. can’t perform effectively as an ultra-premium airline, too expensive as a low cost carrier, and burnt its spiritual advantage of unimpeachable maintenance standards trying to survive – it’s hard to feel positive about the industry when you witness that.
    9. The global industry’s collective inability to really control fuel pricing makes the whole industry unstable. The result is that every other cost (like staff, service, comfort items etc – many of the things that make flying attractive other than its relative speed) become the problem expenses that are periodically culled. If you were a parent advising your kids on a stable career….?
    10. There are very few places these days to “plane watch” close to the action….. sounds minor, but these are the things that get kids hooked.
    11. GA and the Airlines act as if they have no relationship with eachother at all. Worse still, neither of them are making enough money to help the other out even if they did want to change that.
    12. Many of the current generation now concede…. it used to be different, but now it’s just a job.

  • Boltz

    says:

    Pay pilots what they’re worth. There’s a shortage because the airlines only want to pay $60k to have someone sit up front. Look at Rex. FO gets $40k and Captain $60-$70k. What a joke!!! I left flying 2 years ago and am now in a job that pays $100k. How can you compare? I wanted to stay in GA. Loved it!!! Never had dream of going airlines. But the remuneration of $40k – $60k is never going to keep me there. Sad but that’s life!

  • Mike Borgelt

    says:

    Well your local GA airport now looks like Stalag 17 complete with barbed wire and high fences, pervasive “security” procedures, an out of control bureaucracy controls all activity, costs are now outrageous and you have to wonder why nobody wants to go into aviation as a career? They don’t even begin to get interested because of the unfriendly atmosphere and barriers in the way. That’s just GA.
    Why would anyone not interested in aviation want to fly airliners? They get into flying via GA for the most part.

  • Lucas

    says:

    I see in the comments posted so far that there is quite a lot of different input across all areas of the industry but it all seems to boil down to cost involved and the returns offered through salary. I often relate getting the ‘top’ jobs as no different to rock star status in terms of breaking through and reaching that level of command and pay.

    Being a once aspiring pilot myself (having undertaken some training) I can speak from experience in saying that it is very large outlay for no immediate return. I understand that good things come to those who wait but in today’s society and with the cost of living being what it is only a very select few can afford the privelage of training to an employable level with $50k+. Airlines really need to revisit taking the training of future pilots upon themselves not unlike the Airforce, offering incentive and a reasonable standard of living to gain CPL, ATPL etc. Of course this probably won’t happen as long as investors are the top priority for Airlines with profit coming before anything else. They can’t have their cake and eat it too, if they want highly trained Australian pilots they need to provide the avenues and training to enable this. Then there’s always outsourcing to Asia for aircrew and ground staff…

  • Boltz

    says:

    What about those that don’t want to go to the airlines like myself? I love instructing and aerial work but unfortunately it doesn’t pay enough… GA needs a pay increase more so than the airlines.

  • Damien

    says:

    As a technical instructor i have seen a remarkable drop off in the number of aircarft maintenance apprentices being employed over the last eight years. Companies, whether they be as big as QANTAS or as small as some of the local GA maintenance providers are all struggling. People want suitable $$$ but aviation is unable to compete with the likes of BHP in that area. Many apprentices have left once qualified to areas outside of aviation in an effort to make more money, or secure themselves from the volatility of aviation.

    Right now, trying to become a apprentice is dificult and the best will go where the money is. Companies need to invest in apprentices or they will find no recognised training organisations left (no apprentices, no need to train) to provide the training and with CASA closing down their exam system in 2015, it will be the only way to gain a licence.

    Even the new licence system makes things hard with the traditional airframe/engine trade now requiring experience in electrical, instrument and radio system before gaining a licence. It may be ok for people in large organisations like QANTAS, but ame’s with smaller operators are already struggling to become fully licenced.

    Getting people to want a career in aviation, whether that be as a pilot, technician or another role will depend on companies being viable, attractive, providing the right training, good career pathways and a income that allows people to wish to remain and not leave to greener pastures. They need to do this and become profitable or we will find the only people working in aviation are those working for foreign entities.

  • Buzz

    says:

    The sorry state of pilot remuneration in GA and the regional carriers is simply a result of economics, demographics and social trends in Australia.

    Australia is a very wealthy nation. In 2009/10 the ABS conducted a very detailed study into levels of household wealth. Even back in 2009/10 the median Australian household had amassed $426,000 of wealth and the mean household held $720,000.

    62% of private wealth in Australia is held by the top quintile (20%) of households, with an average wealth of $2,223,000. Similarly, in 2009/10 the average household in the top quintile brought in gross annual income of $205,036.

    Flying training for recreational or professional purposes has never been an egalitarian pursuit, however air transport operators made the strategic decision around a decade ago to source as many young pilots as possible from the high wealth, high income households described above. Operators knew that balance sheets would look a lot better if the individual could be forced wear as many training and development costs as possible and be paid on par with earthbound employees well into their flying career. They’ve achieved this objective with great success.

    Airlines take great delight in sourcing cadets from well to do families because they know their salary will effectively serve as ‘play money’ for the first 10 years of their flying career. How the cadet’s family stumps up the exorbitant course fees is irrelevant – The problem lies with ‘wet behind the ears’ cadets having absolutely no comprehension of the value of money, thinking that FO remuneration below the national average income, after having dropped $100,000-$200,000 on their training, is an acceptable return on investment.

    Step down the food chain from cadet schemes to GA operators and regional carriers – They’re able to pay early to mid-career pilots a pittance because they know a significant proportion of them are able to supplement their low income with that of their partner and/or handouts from the bank of mum and dad and/or inheritances. Job applicants whose CV suggests that their initial flight training and living expenses were paid for by someone else are exactly what the recruiters, hiring managers and accountants are looking for.

    Australian school leavers and university graduates from an average socioeconomic background aren’t stupid. They know they face one of the most expensive residential property markets in the world and that the cost of living in Australia will only continue to spiral upwards. They do the sums for how much flying training will cost and how long it will take, their remuneration prospects in the civil aviation industry, the likelihood of making it all the way to a major airline and the likelihood of maintaining long-term employment in what is widely-recognised as a volatile industry with an uncertain future. Many potentially very capable pilots discard the option of a flying career without a lot of umming and ahhing. They know that in other vocations and industries they will make a good or excellent financial, professional and lifestyle return on their investment within half a decade.

    Sadly, aspiring pilots who weren’t born with a silver spoon and take on debt to fund their flying training or endorsements have very little appreciation of what’s involved in paying down several tens of thousands of dollars of debt early in their career. Student debt is a sensible and worthwhile personal investment in fields like health, education, law, engineering, business and the trades, however in the world of aviation there’s no hiding that it’s an enormous gamble. Once qualified to fly, those with large debts will happily accept the crumbs from the table to keep the bank manager at bay and to cover their basic living expenses.

    Some personal experiences/opinions:

    I studied Aviation Management at university in the early to mid 2000s. Those of us in the Management Stream had to achieve a UAI cut off score in the 80s to be accepted into the degree program. On the other hand, the ‘rich kids of leisure’ of the Flying Stream were predominately selected based on their family’s ability to pay upfront or via biannual instalments. Most of the ‘rich kids of leisure’ had never worked a casual or part-time job in their life, and all of them were living the good life throughout university on their parent’s nickel.

    In terms of effort and attitude the Flying Stream students generally fell into one of two categories: (1) The ‘model’ students who had an appreciation of the amazing opportunity they had been afforded. They approached their flying training in a professional manner and did their best when on campus for their academic studies. Several years on, some of them have made it into the RHS of a turboprop or jet, some are still flying bug-smashers and the rest have given up the dream altogether. (2) The second category was the spoilt brats who were half-hearted, naïve, mucked around and completely blew their opportunity to capitalise on their fortunate position. I’m pretty sure they all exited the aviation industry once they realised they were still years away from a well paying gig with a major airline.

    Personally, I’ve always wanted to fly, however for a range of rational and irrational reasons I’ve suppressed the flying bug for many many years. My non-flying career has allowed me to pay off my first home with my partner before the age of 30, build a pretty good superannuation balance and enjoy a debt-free lifestyle going forward. Unlike the life of a pilot I’ve never had to work shiftwork, my weekends are my own and my employers have paid for my postgraduate study and lots of professional development opportunities. Unfortunately though, I’ve not had all the great experiences of learning to fly and making a living tearing around the skies.

    I’m currently facing the high-stakes decision of whether I should ‘chase the dream’ in my thirties, fully aware of the sorry state of the aviation industry. Essentially, I have four options: (1) join the likes of the silver spoon cadets (2) join the ‘rich kids of leisure’ on a university flying program (3) join the family/debt/self-funded flyers making their way through GA and regional carriers (4) stick with my desk-bound job, get my PPL and happily fly something sporty on the weekend and treat aviation purely as a leisure pursuit.

    I wish the small minority of self-funded aspiring pilots all the very best in their flying careers. You’re fighting an uphill battle but if you achieve your goals the victory will be all yours…

  • Concerned

    says:

    Personally I think what you should be asking is for the people that are passionate about a career in aviation, is there really any prospect of an apprenticeship at the end? Speaking from the experience of watching my partner attempt to find an apprenticeship placement as an AME (mechanical) it seems like the only prospect is Qantas. Every other application so far he hasn’t even received a response. So he’s now made it into the top 80 for one of 30 places available and that was from a group of 250. So if he doesn’t get a place there what then? The smaller GA companies don’t appear to offer anything, and its so competitive in the larger organisations that the past year at Aviation Australia may well have just been a waste of time. They should be warned at the beginning, instead of being told that the employment opportunities were endless if you got high marks, it’s just not the case.

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