As a flight school manager or owner, finding good instructors is probably one of your biggest challenges.
Flight schools large and small across the country are reporting that the lack of CFIs is a major drag on growth plans, and some are even starting new-student waiting lists because they can't begin training new customers until other students finish. Crazy. If you had told anybody in the flight training business 20 years ago that there would be a shortage of qualified CFIs, they would have laughed you out of the briefing room. Times change.
Managers have tried most everything to recruit instructors. Many have advertised in GA magazines, knowing full well they're paying for exposure to non-CFI readers but crossing their fingers that they'll reach enough instructors who will respond favorably that it will be worthwhile. That's a pretty heavy bet. Others have turned to social media and pay-per-click advertising in hopes of enticing newly minted CFIs. Savvy bosses know that they can control advertising costs more effectively with online media, and they can effectively target their market so they're only paying for ads that get to CFIs or at least commercial-level pilots. These pros know that online is the way to go, and they commit the lion's share of their recruiting budget to getting clicks, with pass-through to a special section of their website that sells the benefits of teaching at their school. Offers of good pay (for aviation), paid vacation, tons of flight time—even a 401(k) plan—can sweeten the pot, and are rapidly becoming the industry standard. Schools that can't compete will have to turn to other incentives to recruit newbies.
The problem for managers is twofold: finding and hiring new CFIs to replace those who left, and keeping the CFIs already on staff happy so they don't bail. Many CFIs see instructing as a stepping stone to the airlines or corporate flying. As a result, your best talent stays with you a year or two, builds 1,000 to 1,500 hours, then pushes the eject button and is gone. Your problem is then finding a replacement.
CFI recruiting must be seen as a critical function of flight school management. As the worldwide economy continues to grow, the demand for pilots will increase and opportunities for your CFIs to move up the career ladder will remain strong. Your recruiting may get tougher before it gets easier again. The best strategy is an “all of the above” approach to media, with a portion of budget dollars going to print, and the bulk going to a consistent, response-oriented online marketing program. Print ads tend to provide credibility, but the real action—the phone calls, inquiries, and job applications—often come from your online outreach (your mileage may vary).
Instructor retention could also get more difficult. With the job market for CFIs so lopsided in favor of demand, the urge to bolt for more money or a cooler school is always in the back of your instructors' minds. How managers handle the school environment can make a big difference here. The headwinds facing CFIs who want to move are substantial; moving costs and the uncertainty of a new employer often create strong incentives to stay put. But an unpleasant working environment or a boss seen as unfair or capricious can push your best assets out the door. Managers are cautioned to review their employment policies and pay attention to water-cooler talk. More critical employment decision are made in the break room than the board room. Staying attentive and responsive to CFI concerns is vital to any staff retention efforts.
Many schools find that growing their own produces the best crop. As the competition for new instructors has increased, almost all flight schools have seen the benefits of hiring from within. While simple in concept, making it work effectively could be a challenge. How do your advanced students feel about your school? Have they been privy to insider information, gossip, and rumors that may negatively affect their interest in staying with you? Creating and maintaining a uniformly positive environment can be a challenge, but it can pay big dividends when it comes to developing a good CFI team from within. Fostering a sense of community and camaraderie through social and team-building events can not only reduce your student dropout rate but also go a long way toward keeping your best graduates in the fold when they start looking for a job. If you're a smaller school, you may not have enough CFI graduates to meet all your needs, but it can still be an important part of the mix.
Thinking outside the cubicle can also help. If you could design your ideal CFIs from the ground up, what would they look like? How about people with experience so you wouldn't have to do quite so much in-service training? Or maybe folks with no interest in flying for an airline or charter company, who just want to stay active in aviation with no real thought of making it a corporate career? How about professionals who could work full or part time, fill in as and where needed, and who wouldn't bring their personal life drama to work with them every day? Do these elusive creatures exist? Are they available to your school? Yes, they do, and yes, they are. How do you find them? Here's an idea.
How about sponsoring a Rusty CFI seminar? AOPA has had major success bringing lapsed pilots back into aviation through its Rusty Pilots program, which provides materials and guidance for local flight schools to conduct seminars on what it takes for pilots who haven't flown in years to get back in the cockpit. How about stealing the idea and doing the same for CFIs?
The FAA has a database that shows thousands of CFIs across the country who are no longer active. Many are retired or semiretired pilots, or on-call charter pilots with time on their hands. Most have probably not seriously considered going back into instructing, but an outreach program inviting them to a seminar at your school could show them how much the instructor world has changed over the years. Instructors can now earn respectable pay, especially as a supplement to a career. Many inactive instructors may think they'll have to start over with extensive training before they can sit in the right seat again. Your seminar can outline just what it takes, and most will be surprised just how easy it really can be.
Reaching these lapsed CFIs to invite them to your seminars could be easier than you think. The FAA maintains a database with addresses and emails and may be an important partner in promoting your seminars. Your local FAASTeam representative could join with you in sponsoring these seminars, and get the FAA to promote the event through the SPANS system at FAASafety.gov. Many FSDOs are very interested in helping solve the instructor shortage, and they have the ability to email or send regular mail thousands of announcements promoting your seminars. If you prefer to do your own promotion, mailing lists are commercially available listing all CFIs in your city, county, or state. If successful, this could bring in a good share of the instructors you need—people who may stay longer and provide more experienced training.
While there is no single answer in CFI recruitment and retention, taking an “all of the above” approach and thinking creatively produce outstanding results for businesses of all types, including flight schools. All it takes is a little imagination and a willingness to try something new.
William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.