A well-known report predicting that hundreds of thousands of pilot jobs would open worldwide over the next two decades made waves in the marketplace in 2018 as employers fretted over where all those workers would come from.
Right now the short-term outlook looks quite different from Boeing’s widely distributed employment forecast: With air transportation demand down during the coronavirus pandemic and industry layoffs looming this fall when some government aid to airlines ends, how does a pilot who is preparing to enter the job market compete—possibly against more experienced applicants—for jobs that are, temporarily at least, scarce?
It’s still important to network and attend job fairs and aviation events (online) where major employers have a presence. Polish your interviewing skills. Stay informed about what recruiters are looking for in applicants. And despite all the hubbub about demand outpacing the supply of hirable pilots years into the future, you may also need to remind yourself of the virtues of patience while conditions sort themselves out.
That doesn’t mean changing your career aspirations, but you may find that you arrive at your ultimate job-market destination by a different route than the one you planned.
That’s not too different from flying, is it?
Not too long ago it seemed like a matter-of-fact proposition that someone with your tickets, flight time, and multiengine or turbine time would get hired at an airline or by a corporate flight department without too much delay. You tidied up your résumé and accumulated some nice recommendation letters from associates with impressive credentials. Next you may have worked on your interviewing skills, rehearsing your explanation of how your inherent strengths and your aviation education make up for your relative lack of experience—a question you were told would be raised by a senior pilot or the human resources representative conducting your interview.
Keep that strategy for an airline interview in mind, but that may not be where you are headed next, said Art Jacob, an airline transport pilot with numerous Boeing, Airbus, and Cessna Citation type ratings and active flight instructor who also holds advanced degrees in economics and has owned several flight training operations.
“Aspiring pilots need several alternatives, as the career path has no longer become a straight line,” he said in a phone interview.
His advice partly answers a question that must have come into the minds of many would-be aviation career aspirants after FAA Administrator Steve Dickson shared his outlook on the industry’s short-term prospects in a webinar series hosted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in June.
Although Dickson predicted that pandemic-suppressed demand for commercial air travel would make a comeback, “full recovery could take two to four years, with leisure travel outpacing business travel. Carriers that rely on business travel for most of their revenue could see an even slower recovery,” he said.
Aviation has never been short of serving up life lessons—so here’s another one: You may not have imagined yourself working a prolonged stint as a flight instructor, or flying piston twins as a contract pilot, but that may be one of the more practical options for current entry-level professional pilots. (That’s also where your local aviation-community networking could pay dividends, because sometimes, instead of you finding the job, the job finds you as employers survey the local scene to quickly fill an open pilot seat.)
Jacob notes that in the short run, new entrants to the pilot job market, fresh from some instructing experience and with the minimum number of flight hours needed to step up to a commuter-airline first officer’s post, won’t be competing just with their peers (although if you trained at a flight school with an airline-industry partner, you may still have an edge). There may also be mid-career-change pilots who have racked up many flight hours in years of personal flying, and furloughed airline pilots also waiting in line—some having surrendered their all-important seniority when departing a previous job.
“You’ve got a multiple sequence of domino effects happening now, and that’s the unprecedented nature of today,” Jacob said.
On the other hand, he said, the need to shake off complacency about an easy career track that seems to have evaporated can spur job seekers to consider options they might not have looked into previously. “Sometimes it takes a good kick in the butt to drive individuals to do what’s best, and I’ve always believed that—and this is one of those times,” he said.
Bottom line: If it seems impossible to predict when the volatility will subside in an industry already known for its cyclical ups and downs, remind yourself that the basic advice hasn’t changed: Whether you are just now entering training, or making a course correction on your path to a flying career, stay focused on taking the most reliable path to fulfilling your passion to fly.
To be a standout applicant, strive to excel in those areas demanded by employers as well as being able to showcase your understanding of how the aviation industry is affected by economic conditions. (Embry-Riddle, for example, describes the skills it emphasizes in the education of degree-program pilots including leadership; decision-making aptitude “to accurately and quickly assess situations and manage risk”; and knowledge of resource management, human factors, and safety awareness.)
“When airline hiring returns to normal, recruiters will be looking for the most qualified candidates,” notes the flight training company ATP. “Pilots who start training now, and have a jump start on building their hours, will be considered first as flight time is almost always king.”