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SEMO Aviation Program Hopeful For Future, As Airline Industry Looks To Hire Thousands Of Pilots

Whity / Flickr

During the pandemic airlines initially avoided mass layoffs in exchange for federal grants and loans from the U.S. government, however, in mid 2021 they experienced an extreme loss of airport personnel amongst the wave of the omicron variant, with a particular surge in their reduced number of pilots due to early retirement.

The U.S. Labor Department reported the number of people employed by airlines fell from 742,346 in August 2019 to 718,979 in August of 2021.

United Airlines expect to have a shortage of more than 12,000 pilots by 2023. To combat the shortage, United has launched a program called 'Aviate Academy’ to train the next generation of pilots, including promoting other workers to fill vacancies.

Southeast Missouri State University introduced anaviation program last year alongside the growing staffing shortage.

The University’s aviation program works collaboratively with Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, who have recently made adjustments to their daily flight schedules due to staffing shortages.

Photographed on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.
Jacob Wiegand/Jacob Wiegand
Southeast Missouri State Univers
Photographed on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

Kenneth Jackson, Director of Aviation Operations at Southeast explains the University developed their program based on Boeing’s 20 Year Forecast, and the initial growing need for pilots in the industry, something that eventually heightened during the pandemic’s second half.

“It is working very well at this time and our students are very satisfied with the progress that they're making,” said Jackson. “I visit daily with students and parents requesting information about the aviation program and I had three prospective aviation students in Cape Girardeau at the airport this week. I feel really good about the number of requests for information and the conversations that I've had.”

Jackson explains that while the pilot shortage has been a dominant cause of airline problems in the industry, there is a widespread need to fill positions for all airline staff.

“If you're looking into a career in aviation, just about every field in aviation, whether it's an aviation attorney, whether you'd like to write articles about aviation, in publications, whether you want to be an airport manager and you want to be a pilot air traffic, there are huge opportunities in aviation right now,” said Jackosn.

Jackson says graduates and undergraduate students should not be concerned about the industry’s shortage, but instead view it as a bank of opportunity.

“I have perceived it to be a benefit to people coming into the program because, to reference the Boeing 20 year projection, they're saying there's going to be hundreds of thousands of new pilots needed globally over the next 20 years, and we cannot produce pilots fast enough right now to meet the demands,” said Jackson. “The military is short of pilots-- historically the Navy, Air Force and military pilots would transition to companies such as Delta and American Airlines and those individuals are no longer out there. So I think the aviation program at SEMO, the timing of it is good and by the time those students graduate, there will be retirements, expansion of new routes, even now a lot of these companies are ordering planes for the future.”

Jackson expanded that positions are not only readily waiting to be filled, but additional incentives are even being offered.

“Since the pandemic hit to this point, you know, we've had a number of regional air providers that have closed their doors simply because they did not have enough pilots to fly the routes, but we're at a point now in aviation that the providers such as Delta and American and United and FedEx and UPS, they want and need pilots, and there are some bonuses being offered.”

GoJet, another regional Airline in Missouri, increased pay in December 2021 while raising signing bonuses to $20,000 for first officers and $40,000 for captains.

The Transportation Security Administration is also looking to increase its staff, hosting hiring events across the country. In some cases, TSA is offering new hires $1,000 as a recruitment incentive.

Jackson mentions that one of the more subtle setbacks of the pilot staffing shortage is the amount of time the training process demands.

Degrees like Southeast's, which offer a 141 aviation program have the ability to produce more pilots, allowing them to enter the workforce at an accelerated rate.

“As a result of [the course] the number of flight hours before a student can earn a restricted airline transport pilot's license, we can reduce those hours from 1500 hours down to 1000, so that is a significant benefit,” said Jackson.

Boeing’s 20-year forecast says long-term demand for newly qualified aviation personnel remains strong, with projected demand for more than 2.1 million personnel needed to fly and maintain the global commercial fleet over the next 20 years including pilots, maintenance technicians and cabin crew members.

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