Estimated reading time 23 minutes, 53 seconds.
In March 2018, at the industry’s marquee event — Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo — academics from the University of North Dakota (UND) told the industry it was facing a very real, and very severe labor shortage. Based on interviews and surveys completed by 250 helicopter companies and operators, the UND predicted a shortfall of 7,649 helicopter pilots and 40,613 mechanics (across all aviation sectors) in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036. Such numbers would clearly have a staggering impact on the industry.
A similarly-focused study has not been completed in the world’s second-largest commercial helicopter market — Canada — but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that operators there, and elsewhere in the world, are finding it increasingly difficult to fill cockpits with experienced pilots, and hangars with maintenance staff.
But when UND unveiled its findings, the feedback was mixed — at least in the comments section underneath our report on the study on Verticalmag.com. In fact, it was the biggest and most passionate response we received on any story last year. Frustrated pilots claimed that, despite a wealth of experience and expertise, they were finding it difficult to land a job. If there really was a shortage, surely it shouldn’t be this hard, they argued. Other, newly-qualified pilots, fresh from investing tens of thousands of dollars to get their qualifications and build their hours, complained of similar experiences.
We had a comparable response when we posted the story on our Facebook wall.
“There is no helicopter pilot shortage, there is a pay and quality of life shortage that drives away qualified and experienced helicopter pilots,” wrote one. “If helicopter companies paid a low six figure wage, certainly what someone with the experience and skills to operate complex helicopters is worth, then a lot more pilots would choose the industry, especially military pilots.”
Another wrote: “Asking people to invest 100K and then suggest they work on the ground for two years to ‘earn the right’ is not a proper corporate philosophy to attract and maintain good people. [They] need a sponsorship and mentorship program that supports them and earns their loyalty.”
So what’s really going on? Is there a problem with recruitment, retention, or bridging the experience gap between newly-qualified and desirably-hirable? Or is it a combination of all of these? And if so, what’s the solution?
The forecast that got the industry talking was the result of an in-depth study of the helicopter industry’s labor situation, commissioned by HAI and its sister organization, Helicopter Foundation International (HFI). Of the 250 companies surveyed — which included operators large and small — more than half said they had found it harder to hire pilots in the last year than in previous years, while more than two-thirds reported the same challenge with mechanics. And looking ahead to the next five years, more than 60 percent of companies said they expected it would become increasingly difficult to hire pilots and mechanics; less than two percent of companies said they thought it would become easier.
And a familiar pattern is found overseas. According to the HFI, 70 percent of international operators are finding it harder to hire mechanics, 75 percent say they’ve hired mechanics with less experience than in previous years, and over half believe the inability to hire mechanics in the coming years will interfere with their growth and expansion plans.
The root of the issue, according to UND’s study, is simply that more pilots are projected to retire or leave over the next 12 years than are joining the industry. This imbalance will be exacerbated by a growing demand, particularly from emerging markets as they turn to foreign pilots to help grow their fledgling industries.
Dr. Jim Higgins, department chair and associate professor at UND, and one of the study’s authors, admitted that the results had received “a healthy dose of skepticism,” but said he had faced a similar reaction when UND first predicted a shortage of fixed-wing pilots in 2009 — a shortage the regional airlines are now scrambling to cover.
“When you’re an individual that’s put the time and effort in, has built an incredible resume and done all the things you need to do . . . and you’re not experiencing some success, not securing a job — I can see how it would be easy to say, ‘This forecast is full of crap,’ ” he told Vertical. “But the truth is, we looked at it just across the industry. It’s probably true that in certain areas, and in certain nuanced aspects of the industry, there might be some overpopulation [of pilots].”
However, he said there was no skepticism among those that are doing the hiring in the industry. “They feel it already,” he told Vertical. “They’re having to lower their minimums and their basic qualifications, [and] take on more in-house training, which of course increases their expenses. . . . Before, there may have been hundreds of applicants for a single position; there’s not anywhere near that number anymore.”
The military pipeline
Ever since the birth of the helicopter industry, the military has played a key role in providing a seemingly never-ending source of well-trained and experienced pilots and mechanics to the commercial sector. The explosion in requirement for helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War ultimately provided many of the leaders of today’s commercial helicopter industry — and it’s the impending retirement of those highly experienced heads that will be felt so keenly over the coming years.
But another shortage in another industry looks set to have an impact on the helicopter industry that’s as unexpected as it is significant. The fixed-wing industry is facing a severe labor shortage of its own, and it has become sufficiently severe for it to look to tap into the helicopter world’s long-standing military pipeline to help meet its demand.
Over the last couple of years, rotorcraft transition programs have sprung up across the U.S. The programs, tailored specifically for military personnel leaving the service with rotary ratings, offer to cover many of their costs to train as fixed-wing pilots — and dangle the proposition of a structured pathway to a lucrative career at the end of the program.
SkyWest Airlines, for example, offers up to $27,500 through tuition reimbursement and bonuses for rotary pilots; GoJet will fund up to $51,000 in fixed-wing training time for military rotor pilots; while Envoy provides up to $23,000 towards transition training and offers a new hire signing bonus of $17,100. And there are many others.
According to UND, three such programs transitioned over 500 military pilots in 2017 alone, with a success rate of 95 percent.
“That is more than enough to justify the cost to the regional airlines,” said Higgins. “It’s increasing, [and] it’ll absolutely have a staggering chilling effect on the number of rotorcraft pilots that are able to enter the commercial industry because the regionals are poaching them. And they’re very successful with them.”
Does this mean more needs to be done in the helicopter industry to ensure pilots leaving the military stick with rotary? Currently, HAI and HFI offer a free military-to-civilian transition workshop at Heli-Expo each year, and they plan to take this workshop on the road in the future. They also offer resources to allow military personnel to figure out the best and easiest method to transition to a life in the commercial industry, said Allison McKay, VP of HFI.
“Airlines have the resources to dedicate towards the promotion of their programs and they really make it easy for those that are transitioning to go right into training, which is paid for, and the guarantee of a job on the other side,” she said. “The Military to Civilian Transition Workshop is designed to highlight why they want to be a pilot and/or a maintenance technician on the rotorcraft side, and there are benefits to our segment of the industry that these workshops are designed to highlight.”
As most operators don’t have the same resources as airlines, HFI is trying to support them and augment their recruiting efforts, McKay added.
“We are going to be launching a pilot recruitment video that’s specific to rotorcraft,” she said. “We already have a maintenance technician recruitment video that’s up on our website. We’re trying to give them some tools that they may not have the ability to produce on their own.”
The rewards offered by a career in the airlines aren’t just appealing to military pilots, of course. For both those getting ready to embark on their careers, and those who have years of experience behind them, the financial carrot offered by the airlines may be enticing. Last September, HAI and HFI held a HeliFutures workshop with a number of HAI members to discuss labor supply issues and how the industry can continue to attract and retain talent.
“If you don’t believe that you can be competitive alone with salary, then you’re going to need to get creative with your benefits,” McKay advised operators. “Identify things that your employees want that are outside of the salary discussion — maybe it’s a student loan or repayment program while they’re working with you, or the hours. See what kind of vacation time they want, start really identifying what benefits your employees really find the most valuable and then start ramping those up.”
For those looking at just getting started in the helicopter industry, the financial disincentives are real. The prospect is typically at least $90,000 on training to get up to a certified flight instructor (CFI) rating and then a long haul to build hours to reach job opportunities in other sectors, without the potential of the bumper paycheck the airlines can offer.
UND’s research on the fixed-wing market — where it costs a lot less to get certifications and ratings — found that prospective pilots make a consumer decision when choosing their career. “They absolutely weigh the risk, which is the cost and time and effort; versus the reward, which is the future employment opportunities,” said Higgins. “If they’re doing it on the fixed-wing side, there’s no doubt they’re going to do the same thing on the rotorcraft side. And . . . the cost of training is staggering, absolutely staggering. I do think that that is a critical problem.”
While he said there is no “magic bullet” solution to this, financing — through scholarships or grants, from either industry or government — is clearly part of the solution. The other is the introduction of a clearly defined career path.
“One thing that we saw on the fixed-wing side that really helped with that risk-reward consumer based model, is if a student, even a relatively new student to the industry, has a path through the industry,” said Higgins.
Bridging the Experience Gap
Attracting new entrants to the industry is one thing; keeping them once they’ve got their pilot’s certificate or license, but don’t have the experience required for many jobs, is quite another.
Dennis Pierce, the owner and founder of Colorado Heli-Ops, a flight training and utility operator based in Denver, Colorado, said he was clearly seeing a lack of “mid-time” pilots in the 1,000- to 2,000-hour range in the industry.
“There’s absolutely a shortage, without a doubt,” he said. “I have operators that call me every other week, or every month and say, ‘I need another pilot — can you find me somebody?’ ”
He pointed to at least a “30 percent” drop of resumes landing on the desks of major operators he had spoken to as an indication of the changing climate in the industry.
“They’re worrying — they’re looking every day for new pilots,” he said. “Part of that is because a lot of pilots are going to the fixed-wing side, because of the offers and benefits and the offer to pay for training. But also people are getting openings all over the industry, because operator A might lose a pilot to operator B, because operator B’s high-time pilot went to the fixed-wing [industry].”
At the Helicopter Association of Canada’s (HAC’s) annual convention in November 2018, an entire session was dedicated to the labor shortage facing the industry.
The busy fire season last summer highlighted the scale of the issue in the country, said HAC president Fred Jones.
“When operators are parking machines because they can’t find drivers for them during the summer months, that’s an indication that it’s already bad,” said Jones. “I gauge it by how many calls I receive in this course of the summer — and this summer was the worst one. I probably received calls from about 25 different operators that were looking for pilots. [They] were looking for experienced pilots, admittedly.”
And therein lies what appears to be the crux of the issue — at least for the time being — for many operators. Whether or not it’s the sharp end of the forecast shortage, a demographic shift is taking place in the helicopter industry as the Baby Boomers retire — and take their decades of experience with them.
“To be clear,” said Jones, “from [HAC’s] perspective: there’s not a shortage of pilots; there’s a shortage of experienced pilots.”
This “experience gap” in the industry was reflected in the comments UND received in the responses to its survey. As one respondent wrote: “The problem with this industry is an oversaturation of jobs that require very high levels of experience, and a major deficit of jobs in which pilots can build that experience.”
Matt Zuccaro, HAI’s president and CEO, agrees that the issue facing the industry today is a shortage of experienced pilots rather than an aggregate number of rated helicopter pilots. He said the industry needs to figure out how to help young people coming in make that transition to more experienced roles. He noted the 1,000-hour level — along with some turbine time — seems to be a key landmark in opening up other opportunities.
“That’s a heck of a commitment . . . to build up to 1,000 hours and get yourself some turbine time, but I would propose that the standards for certain mission profiles really don’t require that much time,” he told Vertical. He said some of the “more controlled environments” in the helicopter industry — such as aerial tourism — would be a good fit for pilots long before they reach that 1,000-hour mark.
“I really don’t see why we can’t be talking of people transitioning into that type of a mission or similar ones, that have a controlled environment with surveillance and oversight and good structure, to be in the 500-hour range,” he said. “That would help everybody, quite frankly.”
Such a lowering of the minimums for operations would require buy-in from operators, customers and insurance underwriters, he noted. But with the rigid structure of a solid safety management system (SMS) and the various other safety protocols in existence in today’s operating environment, he believes it’s possible.
“I’ve seen plenty of absolutely great young pilots who are in that range of 500/750 hours, who have an excellent safety culture, the mature pilot skills, and the technical knowledge to be just as safe as anybody else that’s out there,” he said. “I think we need to rethink this in a more aggressive manner.”
Beating a path
The idea of having a more clearly defined pathway through the industry to help bridge the experience gap has taken concrete form with the launch of various operator-led programs. Dennis Pierce has created one such program for students at Colorado Heli-Ops. He launched Aviation Futures in 2015, in partnership with Black Hills Aerial Adventures, Papillon Airways, Air Evac Lifeteam, PJ Helicopters, Aero Tech Inc., and T&M Aviation.
Under the program, CFIs at Colorado Heli-Ops are eligible to take seasonal flying positions at Black Hills (a helicopter tour company based in Custer, South Dakota) after reaching 500 hours. This allows them to build their commercial flying experience while keeping their instructor jobs at Colorado Heli-Ops. As they hit experience milestones, they can interview for jobs at the other participating operators.
Last year, two of the company’s CFIs alternated two-week shifts at Black Hills and Colorado Heli-Ops. “It helped us by not losing two CFIs, and it helped [Black Hills] by filling one pilot slot,” said Pierce. “This program allows [pilots] to stay, current, operating, flying and it just makes them better pilots. This year we had three people go to Rotorcraft Leasing in the Gulf [of Mexico]. It’s working.”
Another career pathway program — the SkyPath Pilot Program — has been launched by Mark Schlaefli of Sundance Helicopters, an Air Methods subsidiary. The program started in conjunction with flight school Leading Edge Aviation Inc., of Bend, Oregon, and has expanded to include the University of North Dakota’s aerospace program.
A candidate applies for the program through select part 141 partner flight schools, and as the pilot progresses through ratings, they are evaluated for their performance. Once they have reached a level of certification defined by the school, they are interviewed by a panel from Sundance and the flight school. If they’re accepted into the program, the candidate continues through their ratings at the school and eventually, once they’ve become an instructor and after a period of dual time (and once part 135 minimums are met) he or she is eligible for a guaranteed interview with Sundance.
“There’s no such thing as guaranteed jobs in the world, but it is about as close as you get to that,” said Schlaefli. “We should have been, as an operator, directly involved with developing and mentoring new pilots all along. This is something we should have been doing for years.”
There are currently five people in the program from UND, and Schlaefli expects the first SkyPath graduates to arrive with Sundance in spring 2020. He hopes to ultimately bring through 10 to 15 pilots each year through the program.
“If we can do that, then we’re going to have a great supply of qualified people, we can lower minimums, and have increased performance and increased safety — and I think it will do the industry good,” he said.
The program is focused on pilots right now, but Schlaefli aims to broaden it to maintenance technicians; he said the shortage of engineers was actually his biggest concern.
“We just had some discussions with Southern Utah University, who is in a very unique position with their offering a maintenance course, and have actually been successful in having some regulations changed to allow them to develop a rotorcraft specific track for mechanics,” said Schlaefli. “They are going to learn rotorcraft and very specific things [related to rotary-wing maintenance] from the beginning — which I think is huge.”
Watching the Clock
Such pathway programs have the potential to help redefine the perception of what counts as industry experience — and with it, redraw the boundaries to different types of operation. Aviation Futures allows its CFIs to begin commercial work at 500 hours, while Schlaefli said SkyPath is also looking at the possibility of lowering that 1,000-hour barrier.
“The more we discussed it, the more we figured out that there’s a lot of guys that have 1,000 hours that were just fine at 600 hours,” he said. “Then they did 400 one-hour sessions, 400 times, for the rest of the log book.”
The solution, he said, would be to add an initial operating experience component. In this, a pilot with 750 hours would go through the normal part 135 training program, and then for his or her first 20 to 30 hours in the aircraft, they would fly in an aircraft with dual controls with an evaluator on board. A debrief would follow every flight to help bring that individual up to speed.
“We feel, if we have a known quantity that is going through the program that we’ve gotten to know, participated in their professional development, and then observed, one-on-one, in the field doing exactly what we do every day, [that] we’re going to have a much more predictable outcome than the guy I just hire off the street.”
But why is it that the aviation industry as a whole uses hours as a marker of competency? This question emerged as Dr. Suzanne Kearns, a professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, was doing research for a textbook she was writing.
“I spoke to someone who told me to think of it from a regulatory standpoint — if an accident happens and it comes across your desk as a regulator, and you need to show that you’ve done something, he said the easiest thing to do is to throw a few hours of training at the problem,” she said. “It gives the impression that you’ve made a difference, when in reality you know it may not have actually solved the problem. For me, that mindset that it’s easier because you can count [hours] and it’s easily tracked and it’s easier to get your head around — that’s one of the prevailing reasons why we use hours rather than the idea that it’s the best way as a metric of skill — that was mind-blowing .”
An alternative approach is a competency-based method, but such a system is complicated and requires a bit more sophistication, said Kearns.
“All of a sudden, the responsibility for saying somebody’s done relies on an individual [to] not just count up hours, but to really know what that person’s capable of and feel comfortable that they can act autonomously as a professional,” she said. “It’s tricky, but I think it [provides] a lot of opportunities.”
Several years ago in Canada, HAC created and made available a competency document for wildfire operations that has subsequently been adopted by the wildfire contracting agencies of several provinces.
The document doesn’t specify that pilots have to have flown a set number of hours, but is instead broken into a number of core competencies for wildfire fighting — and pilots must be able to prove that they can do these competencies to get the work.
“We’ve still got some issues to work through on it, but I think it has been a significant success for the industry, and a significant success at getting young pilots into the system,” said Jones. “But that’s only one industry.”
Geoff Packer, founder of HeliSpeed, believes he has another solution to variable labor requirements. Packer established HeliSpeed in 2015 to supply experienced specialized pilots and maintenance engineers to the industry. While based in the U.K., HeliSpeed has 736 pilots on its books from 39 different countries. When an operator needs to add a pilot or mechanic to its staff on a temporary basis, HeliSpeed can provide a detailed match in experience and required ratings from those registered with it. It can also serve as a subcontractor to farm out pilots from overstaffed operators during slow periods.
“We started off supporting Airbus with test pilots, and we still do that,” said Packer. “We also support different MROs in testing their aircraft and getting them serviceable, and we do ferry flying around the world.”
The issue of a labor or skills shortage hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government. When the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act 2018 was finally passed by the U.S. Congress in October, it contained language directly addressing the need for greater outreach promoting aviation as a career. Among several measure, the act called for the creation of a Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force, which has been challenged with developing recommendations and strategies to encourage students, from their junior year of high school, to pursue courses that would lead to a career in aviation. To bridge the gap from education to joining the industry, the task force will also be responsible for identifying and developing pathways for these students to secure apprenticeships and careers in aviation.
In developing its plan, the task force is expected to look at what encourages or discourages young people from pursuing careers in aviation, look at how aviation stakeholders can support those looking to join the industry, and explore ways to enhance apprenticeship and other mentorship programs — including grants and scholarships.
In recognition of the extreme gender disparity in aviation, it also called for the creation of a Women in Aviation Advisory Board, to develop strategies to encourage more women to join the industry.
While acknowledging that the act is focused on the fixed-wing community, Zuccaro said it was at least recognition of the danger posed by the labor shortage aviation is facing.
At Heli-Expo 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia, HFI and HAI held a second HeliFutures workshop with its members to discuss the progress made over the last six months. As ever, the show also included a careers fair and the military-to-civilian transition workshop.
While he knows it will take time and effort to solve the labor issues the helicopter industry faces, Zuccaro said he firmly believes it still holds a special appeal that will continue to encourage people to explore the opportunities it can provide.
“I think that’s one of our greatest attractions in the helicopter industry, is the diversity you could have over a career is just phenomenal,” he said. “The different things you can do and experience, and the benefit that you’re doing to the real world greater society. And I think that’s one thing that we’re trying to promote and show, is that we are unique, we are different, and we can offer you a really exciting career that’s rewarding.”