Schools, companies move to fill massive aviation employee shortage
With the need to fill millions of new aviation jobs over the next two decades, schools and companies in the suburbs are priming the pipeline for high school students to fill the shortage.
The industry will need 637,000 commercial airline pilots, 648,000 maintenance technicians and 839,000 cabin crew members to keep airplanes flying worldwide between now and 2036, according to a report published this year by Boeing. That's a combined 2 million jobs, not including other careers such as air traffic control or airport management.
This has companies such as Wood Dale-based AAR Corp. -- a maintenance and parts supplier for United, Southwest and Delta airlines as well as the Navy and Air Force -- focused on giving Chicago-area students career experiences and internships early in life.
The focus comes from the top of the worldwide company. Last week, CEO David Storch dropped in to visit with a group of about a dozen students from Perspectives Charter School in Chicago who toured Hawthorne Global Aviation Services at Chicago Executive Airport. The tour was part of a two-month program sponsored by the company for students at the charter school.
"This is about giving them an education beyond what they might get in school," Storch said.
Industry experts have various theories for the impending employee shortage, including an aging workforce, reduced interest in hands-on technical jobs and less exposure as airports ramped up security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Alluding to security fences constructed around many airports to block access, Rayner Hutchinson, AAR Corp.'s vice president of quality and safety, said it's the industry's job to "part the barbed wire and let them see what's possible."
For many of the students touring Hawthorne Aviation last Wednesday, it was their first time aboard an airplane. Sitting in a corporate jet parked in a hangar, junior Tiara King talked about her aspirations to become a doctor. Still, she said, the final decision hasn't been made, and the aviation program has taught her about another career option.
"It lets me know what other jobs, what other things you can do," King said.
This fall, Crystal Lake High School District 155 partnered with Lake in the Hills Airport and a local flight school to offer an elective course in four schools for students to earn Federal Aviation Administration private pilot ground school certification. Officials hope it will be a blueprint for other high schools.
And sitting within the busy O'Hare International Airport market, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 will be starting an aviation careers program next school year. The school district will be partnering with the aviation program at Lewis University to offer a dual credits to high school students, said Dan Weidner, the district's director of academic programs and pathways.
District officials are designing the program to allow students to earn an aviation maintenance technician certificate within 12 to 18 months of graduation, potentially leading to jobs with a median salary of $60,000. The program will provide a basis for all careers in aviation. The idea is to help students land middle-class jobs and remain in the community, Weidner said.
"It's engaging for our students, it's good for the community, and there's real opportunities," Weidner said. "No pun intended, but the sky is kind of the limit in terms of career pathways in aviation."