‘Talent Crisis’ Looms for American Aviation, Senate Committee Is Told

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No pilot shortage, but mechanics, other staff in short supply; women underrepresented

American aviation is in good shape now, but action is needed to head off a shortage of workers in many high-paying aviation jobs, witnesses told a U.S. Senate committee on March 16.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), herself a pilot, warned about the consequences of failing to act.

“Without a properly trained, equipped, and compensated workforce, the safety of the flying public will be put at risk,” she said during the hearing in Washington. “And the delays we’ve experienced over the past few years will seem mild by comparison.”

Duckworth suggested that Congress consider devoting $100 million annually to aviation-workforce-development grants, a tenfold increase. That investment would pay off, witnesses told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation.

The committee’s hearing on “Strengthening the Aviation Workforce” is part of its work to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding and operations for the next five years.

Cooperation among government, industry, and education leaders is essential to address the looming “talent crisis” in aviation, said Rebecca Lutte, distinguished professor at the University of Nebraska’s Aviation Institute.

Epoch Times Photo
Rebecca Lutte, distinguished professor at the University of Nebraska’s Aviation Institute, speaks to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation in Washington, on March 16, 2023. (Janice Hisle/The Epoch Times via screenshot of live video)

“Aviation must attract and retain the best possible talent from the widest possible pool,” she said, noting that women have historically been vastly underrepresented in that field.

While much attention has focused on a purported shortage of pilots, the head of an international pilots union denies any such deficiency. Witnesses told the committee that they are more concerned about adding workers to fill important but less-noticeable positions such as aircraft mechanics.

Capt. James Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, declared, “The big airlines have far more pilots 1679037099 than they had before the pandemic,” and pilot-training programs are full.

The problem, he said, is a training backlog.

During the coronavirus pandemic, airlines furloughed pilots and made other cost-cutting measures while “fighting to keep the lights on,” Ambrosi said.

Retraining all of those pilots–and new pilots–is time-consuming and costly, he said. But that problem will take care of itself as airlines get caught up with that training.

Shortage of Technicians

A more significant concern: By 2040, 134,000 technicians will be needed to support North American commercial airlines. “The U.S. is ill-poised to meet that demand,” Sheree Utash, president of Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology (WSU Tech), said in written testimony.

Young children “know what a pilot is,” but they are unfamiliar with “all the people that make that plane fly,” Utash stated during the hearing.

WSU Tech’s National Center for Aviation Training has been working hard to attract young people and train them, she said, and the program has gained national recognition. The program annually draws dozens of high schoolers, and 92 percent of the program’s graduates went on to work in Kansas aerospace jobs, she said.

Several dozen mothballed Delta Air Lines jets
Delta Air Lines jets are parked at Kansas City International Airport, Mo., on May 14, 2020. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

Funding is needed for WSU Tech to expand its program to all Kansas high schools. Her school applied for federal grants but has been denied, she said.

Utash said she reviewed other applications that were also turned down, apparently for lack of funding, and found many other equally worthy programs.  That’s why she supports Duckworth’s proposal to boost grant funding dramatically.

Lutte said a key to getting young people involved is to expose them early to the exciting world of aviation.

“There’s something about aviation that hooks you in … from the first time that you look up and see the airplane, and you know that’s your dream.”

The message needs to be clearer: “If you have a passion for it, there’s a place for you,” Lutte said.

Impact Is Global

“No other industry connects humanity like aviation; it expands to all corners of the globe and all aspects of our lives,” she said in written testimony.

She is particularly concerned that very few women are involved in aviation, which shrinks the industry’s talent pool.

“A complex system of barriers impedes the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in aviation,” she said. That includes training costs, work-life balance concerns, and allegations of bias and harassment in the workplace. In a 2018 survey, 71 percent of aviation women reported experiencing sexual harassment in work settings.

Despite such obstacles, Lutte said she remains hopeful and excited about future improvements.

During her 30 years in aviation, “I’ve never seen so much momentum to expand the aviation workforce,” she said.

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