Sean Hackbarth Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


March 13, 2019


Finding enough workers is a challenge in many American industries right now.

“We have people without jobs – who lack the skills or education to fill open positions,” said U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue at the State of American Business address in January. “And we have jobs without people – employers tell us positions are sitting vacant because they can’t find the workers they need, when and where they need them.”

This is especially true in the aerospace sector, as experts in industry and government discussed at the U.S. Chamber’s Aviation Summit, earlier this month.

Tom Gentile, President and Chief Executive Officer of Spirit AeroSystems, laid out the situation facing the industry in a panel discussion.

“We're going to be doubling air traffic every 12-15 years,” he said. "What it's requiring is a significant amount of new aircraft."

That means more people to build, fly, and maintain those new planes.

Boeing estimates that worldwide the industry will need 790,000 pilots (206,000 in North America) and 754,000 technicians (189,000 in North America) over the next 20 years.

Aircraft makers also have to find more workers because their workforce is aging. "Forty percent of our workers will be eligible for retirement in the next five years," said Gentile.

Where will these workers come from?

Higher education plays an important role.

Universities have the "responsibility of educating and then connecting [potential workers] with the workforce," said Dr. John R. Watret, Chancellor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

To find more workers, "we have to look at some of the underrepresented groups,” he noted.

"Forty percent of female engineering graduates either don't go into engineering or leave the practice of engineering," said Watret. "We need to be able to bring them and entice them to be [in aviation]."

Roger King of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers discussed manufacturing and retaining knowledge in factories that is lost when workers retire.

"We don't want to lose that knowledge without being able to have an opportunity to pass that on to younger generation,” he said.

Apprenticeships are an approach for solving that problem.

Apprentices “are working with that senior worker that's worked at the company for 30-40 years,” explained king. “And he's passing on the critical asset knowledge to keep those machines running, being able to troubleshoot them faster, and the safety policies the companies have. He's able to mentor and guide that apprentice up to a standard where in four years he's turned loose in the plant or facility to be productive."

Ed Bolen, President and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, focused on selling aviation to young people, emphasizing technology and community.

"Kids today are very focused on technology, they love being around it, they love to see where it will take them, and we're a high tech industry,” he said. "Young people also like community. They like to be part of something, and the aviation community is actually very strong."

"We are effectively connecting people and companies across continents and connecting cultures. That idea that we have a purpose – we can bring people together, make the world smaller – is something that should attract some of the best and the brightest," Bolen added.

Another pool of potential workers lie in the military.

Watret explained that at Embry-Riddle University, "We can put [veterans] through a nine week aviation management maintenance certificate ... that when they leave they can go out in MRO [Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul]."

In her keynote address, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao tackled workforce development, noting the importance of the industry to the U.S. economy.

"In 2017, our aerospace industries and its workforce accounted for more than 40% of the entire world's aerospace exports worth more than $131 billion,” she said.

Her department has a number of ongoing projects to develop more workers.

The recent FAA reauthorization "includes programs to develop an aviation curriculum that can be included in high school STEM projects," Secretary Chao said.

In addition, there is an "aviation workforce grant program which includes scholarships, apprenticeships, and grants to purchase equipment for schools."

And like the aerospace industry, the Transportation Department is looking to the military for workers.

"The department is also helping members of the armed forces transition into aviation careers. We all know there is a shortage of pilots, and last year we launched a three-year pilot program, called 'Forces to Flyers' that provide military veterans with the training they need to become commercial pilots,” said Secretary Chao. “The first class of veterans are now in training and the department hopes to increase the number of veterans in this demonstration project."

As demand for air travel increases, education, industry, and government will need to work together to develop the workforce necessary to maintain U.S. competitiveness.

About the authors

Sean Hackbarth

Sean Hackbarth

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.

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