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The results of a new study confirm that the helicopter industry is expected to face a serious shortage of qualified pilots and maintenance personnel over the next 18 years.
The study, performed by the University of North Dakota (UND) in collaboration with Helicopter Association International (HAI) and Helicopter Foundation International (HFI), predicts there will be a shortage of 7,649 pilots in the United States alone between 2018 and 2036. That deficit will be driven largely by an expected 1.5 percent increase in the country’s total number of airframes over the next two decades.
While this number is concerning, it’s the results of the maintenance personnel forecast that are most alarming. In a presentation at Heli-Expo 2018, Dr. Elizabeth Bjerke of UND revealed that the U.S. is expected to see a cumulative shortage of 40,613 certified aviation mechanics between now and 2036.
“Industry as a whole has been talking about it, but I’ve seen a lot less being done than on the pilot side,” said Bjerke. “However, we do believe the mechanic shortage will be much more pronounced [than the pilot shortage] if something drastic isn’t done soon.”
A survey of more than 250 HAI operator members, three quarters of them from North America, shows that 67 percent are already finding it more difficult to locate and hire qualified mechanics.
The shortage of helicopter pilots and aviation maintenance personnel is also being felt internationally.
Bjerke said one of the biggest threats to the personnel supply is the growing helicopter industry in China. In 2017, there were only one thousand helicopters operating there; but as the country’s population and infrastructure continue to expand, China will need to import industry expertise. As its industry grows, it will siphon off pilots and maintainers from the rest of the world.
Closer to home, regional air carriers in the U.S. also represent a threat to the supply of helicopter pilots. As they scramble to fill their own cockpit seats, these operators are offering candidates rotary to fixed-wing pilot transition programs.
The UND reached out to three regional airlines to find out if helicopter pilots are showing interest in these conversions.
“Lo and behold, the interest in these transition programs is very high,” said Bjerke. “In 2017 alone, 500 [rotary] pilots transitioned through their programs with a 95 percent completion rate. That was at just three of these airlines. Many more are offering these programs.”
While operators reported hiring pilots from the traditional streams – the military and civilian training schools, for example – poaching within the industry is also prevalent as larger companies with better incentive packages draw employees away from smaller operators.
In fact, 64 percent of survey respondents reported that when pilots leave, they are going to fly for other companies.
“There were a lot of thoughts out there from the membership on the shortage,” noted Bjerke. “We put comments together to try to get a more in-depth perspective.”
She said one common theme is that while the fixed-wing industry has well defined pilot career paths, those don’t really exist in the helicopter industry.
“There are lot of pilots with 250 hours, but the industry really needs people with high time and experience. So how do we take someone with lower experience and bridge them all the way through?”
On the maintenance side, some people felt efforts should be made to recruit and re-train qualified military mechanics to help bridge the experience gap.
“There is a lack of preparation and knowledge needed when it comes to maintaining rotorcraft,” said Bjerke. “The fear here is there are a lot of seasoned, experienced mechanics retiring soon, and there isn’t that level of experience coming up through the ranks.”
Attracting the next wave of helicopter pilots and aviation mechanics is a big priority for HAI and HFI.
“Our industry needs to take a hard look at how we do things,” said Matt Zuccaro, HAI president and CEO. “We really don’t have a choice. These numbers show a future where the growth of our industry will be curtailed because operators won’t have the workforce they need. But we have the option to change that future by acting proactively now to recruit the next generation of pilots and maintainers.”
Bjerke made several recommendations to address the looming shortage, including harnessing the power and creativity of young people themselves.
“We work day in and day out with this new generation, Generation Z,” she said. “They are very different. They are digital natives. We need to embrace current technologies to communicate with this generation.”
She suggested ideas such as creating and posting more helicopter pilot and maintenance videos on YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites, as well as designing helicopter filters for Snapchat and harnessing the power of virtual reality (VR).
“There are so many VR opportunities; it’s already being used in maintenance training. How do we support this technology to get it down into the K-12 education system?”
Bjerke also encouraged industry members to create internships so students can help them identify the best ways to communicate with their generation.
The creation of defined career pathways for helicopter pilots and maintainers will also go a long way to attracting Generation Z, which Bjerke said enjoys structure and job security.
As an example, she pointed to a recent partnership between UND and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Concerned about its future supply of pilots, the government agency is working with the university to give student trainees the skills they need to join its ranks.
Bjerke also said industry must invest in things like recurrency training programs, financial assistance and more rotary scholarships for both flying and maintenance.
The impending labour shortage has the potential to severely cripple the helicopter industry. As Bjerke indicated, “drastic” action is needed.
Implementing solutions will require a united effort from all stakeholders – including government, industry, military, finance, insurance and education – to ensure there are enough young recruits to keep both rotors and wrenches turning.