Making Aviation/Aerospace Workforce Programs More Effective

Credit: SpaceX Upsplash

By Kathryn B. Creedy

12-minute read

  • Workforce development programs not as effective as they should be
  • Tectonic social & economic shifts are driving workforce changes
  • Companies add social justice to social responsibility for more success
  • Aviation & Aerospace lag behind other industries
  • How to build the cultural shifts needed for tomorrow’s workforce

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“Two years ago, we realized our inability to meet workforce needs was having a negative impact on our financial results,” said AAR CEO John Holmes, expressing concern on Covid’s impact. “My concern, in the middle of this crisis, is the momentum and success we had in building our program is being lost. I’m concerned people are leaving the workforce to other industries and retirement. I’m concerned aviation programs in colleges won’t be as attractive and that pipeline of talent coming into the colleges will dry up. If that happens, when the demand comes back in two-to-three years we could find ourselves in a bigger shortfall. It is important, as hard as it may be through this crisis, to continue to expand these programs and create more partnerships with community colleges so that pipelines stay intact.”

His concerns are well founded. ARSA’s maintenance, repair & overhaul members were leaving $1.4 billion on the table annually for lack of employees. Regional cargo carriers were also turning away new business. But this is not just about pilots or AMTs. It is about data analysts, engineers, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, demographers and any number of other disciplines in aviation and aerospace.

The problem is, while aviation and aerospace workforce development programs number in the hundreds if not thousands, they could be far more effective by collaborating. It is clear the aviation and aerospace industries are not connecting the dots, judging from their lack of participation in important resources that would amplify their efforts and make them more competitive with industries that have already surpassed us.

Observers question whether industry grasps the impact of social changes on what consumers, stockholders and employees are now demanding of businesses. After realizing we will never reach our workforce targets without thinking outside the traditional pipeline and education boxes, industry is targeting under-represented, under-employed and at-risk people.

What is also clear is embracing social changes is good for business and is driving wholesale human resource and aviation education changes as well as definitions of success.

Doing well by doing good

Indeed, one company traded Ebitda and key-performance-indicator discussions for leadership issues described as building a culture of trust and responsibility allowing employees to drive cultural changes.

Numerous studies show why this is good business. “Consumers and employees are now looking for more than Corporate Social Responsibility,” a recent Harvard Business Review  (HBR) reported. “They’re looking for Corporate Social Justice. Consumers and other stakeholders want companies that see social good as a necessity, not just a marketing strategy. It’s up to companies to respond to this new challenge.” 

The World Economic Forum agrees, saying diversity and sustainability are key parts of, not only consumer, but investor strategy. Consumers will pay a premium to companies echoing their values, according to recent studies showing sustainability, and now social justice, drive premium results. The Carlysle Group found companies with higher diversity have nearly 12% more earnings growth per year than the average company that lacked diversity, according to Nasdaq.

The HBR report added: “Research shows companies with effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs are more profitable than those that aren’t.  Over the last 50 years, corporations have relied on these programs, which include social issue marketingphilanthropic efforts, employee volunteer initiatives and diversity and inclusion work, to build their brands and satisfy customers.”

Shareholders are looking at the social justice agenda of corporations, according to the World Economic Forum, showing the difference between being successful and ensuring all stakeholders are successful.

Society’s expectations towards business are rising and companies are increasingly aware of them and making it part of core business strategy, said WEF. 

gray airplane illustration
Credit: Alex Powell on

“Amazingly – as a consequence, not as a goal – they have enjoyed great economic success. Instead of calculating, they bet that unconditional care for their ecosystem members would organically lead to fair profits and it has worked for these altruistic companies for decades, including during the COVID pandemic.”

See it to be it

Part of that change is being driven by millennials and GenZers, who not only want better work/life balance, which clashes with antiquated work rules, but value a job that makes a difference over higher salary.

All these tectonic shifts in human relations require a wholesale culture change that trades a top down mentality for inclusion and collaboration. For this, it will be critical to engage new partners such as the Organization for Black Aerospace Professionals. It also requires broadening hiring to include differently abled, senior and LGBTQ workers.

The culture change required to ensure this time is different was described as a “just culture” by AAR Corporation’s Vice President Workforce Development Ryan Goertzen.

Aviation & Aerospace Not Competitive

“Other industries are way ahead of us in workforce development, so we need to work together to ensure we have a vibrant workforce filled with skilled people,” said Goertzen.

Source: AAR Corporation

In fact, many industries from building trades to automotive, have done much more to accommodate workforce changes.

For example, just taking women’s progress, which exceeds those from other under-represented groups, only 14% of the roles surveyed across the top 100 airlines had female incumbents in early October this year, according to a recent Flightglobal report.

Thirty percent of mid-sized firms in different industries have women CFOs compared to 15% at top airlines, according to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2020 report. Only 4% of COO roles at airlines are women compared to 18% in the wider economy with similar results for CIO 13% versus 16%. But none of these percentages shout success by any means.

Many acknowledge the industry’s first problem is aviation’s image.

“We need to align the entire industry to the workforce discussion,” Goertzen said. “Our first problem is marketing opportunities in aviation and aerospace to the high school guidance counselor. You have to make it easy for them to explain to students and parents the potential for high-quality, high-paying jobs. You have to talk about the greatness of aviation careers and the fact the best is still in front of us. SpaceX, for instance, is bringing back human space flight. And, before Covid, the industry was the most financially successful it has ever been.”

Future & Active Pilot Advisors agrees and that is why its Career Resource Center for Guidance Counselors is so important.

Industry workforce development programs now target new demographics, under-represented communities and military transition programs and AAR is a perfect example of how a broader social justice agenda works to lift people out of poverty and into high-quality, high-paying careers. The company has made significant changes to its workforce development team to ensure it retains and grows talent adding a new VP maintenance workforce development, a new director of talent management, a new MRO Group VP of HR and two new leadership instructors to support maintenance and engineering services

Source: AAR Corporation

“The Eagle Career Pathway Program was launched for two reasons – as a marketing tool for the schools to use to deliver the message of aviation careers and then to develop pathway programs to AAR,” Goertzen told FA/AW News. “Prior to COVID it was working very well. Students were signing up in their last year of school and we were starting the mentorship side of the program that exposed them to careers beyond the technician that an Airframe & Powerplant certificate would lead to. I think that COVID has changed the way that we think about everything when it comes to the work environment.” 

It’s first program, developed in only four months, partnered with Olive Harvey College, is an impressive effort that started on the south side of Chicago, one of the most desperately poor areas in the country.

“This program focused on aviation sheet metal in a 60-day program which provided an opportunity for those not destined for the traditional two-to-four-year college,” Goertzen said in a recent Eva International Media podcast. “We wanted to help them transition to a career they never thought about.”

Another example is a new collaboration between the Cuban-American National Council (CNC) and Pan Am International Flight Academy in Miami exposing at-risk youth to airline training and the aviation industry.

Both are important since 33% of high school graduates are not college-bound, according to Great It also coincides with the growing call for shorter workforce training programs to transition those laid off with new career paths. In response, industry is developing boot camps, preparing students for higher-paying careers in 12-to-15 weeks, while just-in-time training as well as on-demand training programs are emerging. Guild Education recently developed Next Chapter for displaced workers while Microsoft launched a digital skills training program targeting 25 million worldwide by leveraging data to match in-demand skills to education programs, according to a recent EdSurge Report. Aviation and Aerospace should be there as well.

Public, private, education partnerships

“After the Eagle program, we started to work with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) setting up its first maintenance Skillbridge program – a nine-week program at Camp Lajeune to help active-duty military transition to the civilian workforce,” Goertzen continued. “These programs were designed to help these students transition to us quickly.”

The Skillbridge program, run by Department of Defense, Department of Transportation and other federal agencies, is widely known in the industry.

One of AAR’s most important efforts was transitioning furloughed workers as suggested by Aerospace Industries Association CEO Eric Fanning at the very beginning of the pandemic, saying workers will feel more loyalty toward a company helping to find them new jobs.

“We partnered with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, who were still hiring,” Goertzen explained. “They took up the slack for us because we were not hiring. That is the dynamic of the industry right now. We are all in this together and we must help each other while we help our workers. We recognize there needs to be rightsizing but helping our folks find opportunities in our other facilities and the broader industry is what we’ve aways done. We know the industry values our employees. Investment in people helps you on the attrition side.”

Another program targets one of the most important groups – those who do not have an education, are under-employed or, as Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance Executive Director Nikki Malcom added, the formerly incarcerated. The idea is to let them know they can transition to an aviation career without having to invest a lot in school.

“It’s about investing on the front end to show people aviation is a viable career path while recognizing what we can do now is to keep as many as we can on payroll because we are concerned tremendous amounts of knowledge is leaving the industry,” said Goertzen

“AAR also has a summer internship program to expose students to a global aerospace company and the various careers that are critical to our success,” he added. “Education and training is the pathway to generational change. That is why I use any chance I can get to tell people to get into aviation.”

Source: Choose Aerospace

It is no surprise, then, that Goertzen, once president of Spartan College, is now president of Choose Aerospace, a new organization under the auspices of the Aviation Technical Education Council (ATEC), to expand recruitment and training of the next generation aviation and aerospace professionals. Importantly, he brings aviation education insights that are an essential part of workforce development programs. AAR and many industry associations including ARSA and AIA, are also working with Congress on workforce development, government funding and changes to aviation curriculum and teaching which needs critical support before a new Congress convenes.

“Most federal agencies are engaged in workforce issues and I find it is the great unifier in Washington,” said Goertzen. “I think Choose Aerospace is uniquely suited to help bring our industry together.  In the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill, Section 625 entirely focused on workforce.  The Youth and Women in Aviation task forces are examples of bringing the industry together with a central focus. Aerospace was in a workforce crisis prior to COVID and we will be once again as the industry recovers.  We must remain focused on expanding the pathway to aviation with a focus on under-represented populations.” 

Leveraging well-developed resources

International Association of Women Airline Pilots

Still aviation and aerospace industries could be working with associations within the diversity community such as Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), Latino Pilots Association, National Gay Pilots Association and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21) for important insights on how to change the culture and work rules that now represent barriers to recruitment and retention, as FA/AW reported recently. In fact, OBAP’s Courageous Conversations Series is required listening.

Boeing’s Return to Flight program is a great example of how we can tap new markets and will take on new importance post Covid.

National Gay Pilots Association

A quick survey tells the story, especially for aerospace companies and their associations. Airlines, unions and business aviation are well represented as corporate sponsors although their participation depends on the group. Women in Aviation International is very popular, confirming diversity, so far, is largely defined by addressing women. Meanwhile, corporate sponsorships at National Gay Pilots Association and Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals pale by comparison.

The National Business Aircraft Association, Helicopter Association International, National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have all connected the dots, especially for women. In Europe, signatories to the Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter represent both aviation and aerospace well, although again there are few associations except the European Regions Airline Association and Royal Aeronautical Society. Advancing Minorities Interests in Engineering (AMIE), a consortium of 12 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Deans of Engineering, has numerous aerospace industry sponsors. But NBAA, HAI, NATCA and Royal Aeronautical Society show the importance of tapping all resources, not just the traditional.

Four issues are at the root of workforce problems. First, is failure to tap resources already out there that could amplify efforts. Second tapping untraditional markets for employees. Third, is the failure to sell aviation/aerospace to kids. Fourth is addressing the barriers to recruitment and retention. The industry is on the cusp of addressing all these issues but collaboration will be the key to success.

Crowd Sourcing Reminder: Do you have a program we should know about? Contact

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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