Our woeful numbers insist that we change tactics.

We are at an unprecedented point in the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) industry: the shortage of pilots and maintenance personnel, forecast for years, is finally here. I am hearing reports from the field of operators not being able to vie for new contracts or support current ones because they lack the staff to support the work.

How did we get here, and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

As to how we got here, well, at the most fundamental level, we have failed to recruit and retain talent in sufficient numbers. Examining the reasons why may provide us with some strategies for addressing the problem.

James Viola, HAI president and CEO

Conduct an informal survey of your colleagues. Why did most of them end up in VTOL aviation? For me, my childhood dream was to fly. Being able to live that dream has given me a meaningful career and a great deal of satisfaction. Many in our industry were also “bitten by the aviation bug” a long time ago, likely before they graduated high school. We cannot imagine doing anything else.

That bug continues to bite a certain number of young people, infecting them with the desire to do what it takes to be around helicopters all day. But those numbers are simply not enough to fill our pipeline. We cannot wait for our future pilots and maintenance technicians to seek us out; we have to go find them and make a convincing argument about why they should join us.

Our industry is not alone in being challenged to find qualified workers. In the United States, the unemployment rate is 3.5%, matching the lowest rate in 50 years and creating a competition for talent.

So what is our value proposition? For many pilots, it is that they should take out sizable loans, only to work for relatively low wages until they reach the 1,500 hours that enable them to be insurable, and therefore employable, in many sectors. Many pilots now in the industry made those sacrifices. While they built their hours, they delivered pizza as a side gig so they could support their families. Some may even feel that the next generation should struggle as they did. But is that a winning workforce-development strategy?

Even within aviation, the VTOL industry has trouble competing with the airlines. Those large corporations with deep pockets have developed entire recruiting programs for pilots and maintenance technicians, complete with career progression ladders and signing bonuses. For military aviators, they provide customized training plans that offer ex-military personnel what they are accustomed to hearing: “Just sign up and show up. We will take care of the rest.”

We must also look at the issue of retention. Yes, we need to raise awareness among young people about the great opportunities we offer. But we should also take a hard look at why some experienced personnel leave VTOL aviation. As someone told me, “It is not just about who walks in the front door; we also have to look at who is walking out the back one.”

This problem is larger than any one operator or manufacturer, which is why we need to address it as an industry. The HAI Board of Directors has created the HAI Workforce Development Working Group to examine the issue and create strategies to ensure a sustainable VTOL workforce. If you are interested in moving our industry forward on this issue that is critical to our future, please contact me at president@rotor.org.

Author

  • James Viola

    James A. Viola is HAI’s president and CEO. After a career as a US Army aviator, he joined the FAA, where he served as director of the Office of General Aviation Safety Assurance before joining HAI. A dual-rated pilot, Jim holds ATP ratings in both airplanes and helicopters and is a CFII. Jim can be contacted at president@rotor.org.

James Viola

James Viola

James A. Viola is HAI’s president and CEO. After a career as a US Army aviator, he joined the FAA, where he served as director of the Office of General Aviation Safety Assurance before joining HAI. A dual-rated pilot, Jim holds ATP ratings in both airplanes and helicopters and is a CFII. Jim can be contacted at president@rotor.org.

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