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.
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.
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.