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Pilot Program

Area schools partner with airlines to fill a talent shortage


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Boeing publishes 20-year outlooks on the pilot workforce based on aircraft orders and projections; the 2018 report says 90,000 to 120,000 new pilots will be needed in North America by 2038. 

The scarcity can’t be solved with mere want ads. Commercial pilots need hundreds of hours of flight time and a long list of qualifications before they can occupy the right-hand seat in the cockpit. 

To build a better talent pipeline, carriers are collaborating with universities and other educational institutions. United Airlines has partnered with Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver). 

“The shortage has been brewing for a long time,” says Kevin Kuhlman, associate chair of MSU Denver’s Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science. It has roots in the early 2000s, he notes, but the 2008 financial crisis effectively kicked the can down the road. “You constantly had pilots on furloughs in that time up until 2013.” 

Retirement age for pilots jumped from 60 to 65 in 2007 and buoyed the workforce, but that’s coming to an end. “You start getting into this cycle where you have thousands of pilots retiring,” Kuhlman says. 

By 2013, the perfect storm gathered as the airlines started hiring pilots for the first time in a decade. The comeback kicked off a cascade: The majors’ longstanding strategy of bringing in pilots from regional carriers left the regionals in a lurch, as the FAA upped the hours needed to be a first officer in 2013. Regionals “couldn’t find anybody to backfill” their needs, Kuhlman says. 

MSU Denver was the first university in the country to partner with a legacy carrier. Since the partnership was cemented in 2017, United has also partnered with University of North Dakota, and Delta is working with Auburn University in Alabama. 

Mike McCasky, managing director of flight training for United in Denver, says the goal of the MSU Denver partnership is all about making a more predictable and better-informed hiring process. 

Flight school and accumulating the necessary hours can cost a student $200,000 to $250,000. “We’re trying to take some of the risk out of that investment for those candidates,” McCasky says, by “defining the path from university to airline.” 

McCasky says United will announce more university partners later in 2019. “We’re trying to develop an ecosystem that feeds on itself from the start.” 

MSU Denver now has more than 200 full-time students in its pilot program. Kuhlman says “only three or four” schools in the U.S. have more. 

But flight schools “only have so many flight instructors and so many airplanes,” Kuhlman says. MSU Denver takes a different approach by allowing students to go on the open market for instruction. Many go to Metro’s partners, Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig and Aims Community College in Greeley, to accumulate hours. 

Carriers “are definitely going to expand these programs and get to the point where they have some predictability in hiring,” Kuhlman says. “Now they’re reaching down to universities. I know it’s their plan to be reaching down to high schools and even middle schools.” 

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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