The Colorado Aerospace Industry is Combating an Alarming Pilot Shortage — Here’s How
How the Colorado aerospace industry is building the next generation of workers through the Wings Over the Rockies™ Museum's Wings Aerospace Pathways (WAP) program.
With the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy, Colorado is home to more than 400 aerospace and aviation companies. To keep Colorado at the forefront of aerospace innovation, we must have a strong talent pipeline. Yet, our workforce is at a crisis point. There are millions of open jobs but people lack the skills needed to fill them. The aerospace industry faces an aging workforce and a limited pipeline of skilled talent, resulting in a lack of pilots and aviation and aerospace engineers.
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Oliver Wyman estimates the aviation industry is facing a deficit of about 8,000 pilots, or 11% of the total workforce, and says the shortfall could reach 30,000 pilots by 2025. In 2021, Boeing forecasted the global industry’s need for 626,000 new maintenance technicians over the next two decades compared with 612,000 pilots. The average age of an aerospace engineer is 45.
As an industry, we must invest in educating, training and mentoring the next generation of talent. Wings Over the Rockies™ Museum launched Wings Aerospace Pathways (WAP) in 2019 to address these workforce challenges. WAP focuses on building aerospace skills and facilitating experiences that prepare middle and high school students for careers in aerospace and beyond. As an enrichment program, students come from a diverse array of school environments – online, homeschool, hybrid and traditional in-person schools. Each student spends one day per week at WAP participating in hands-on, experiential learning in a real-world context.
Students take a wide range of courses focused on project-based learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM). The skills learned, such as teamwork, problem-solving, design thinking and applied technology reach beyond aerospace and are skills needed in many fields. In addition, students have the ability to earn industry certiﬁcations and concurrent enrollment credits through Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology.
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A unique component of Wing’s WAP is its mentoring program which pairs students up with professionals from Lockheed Martin, a longstanding industry partner, to help shape the next generation of aerospace industry professionals. Through a generous grant from Lockheed Martin for the 2021-22 school year, this program gives students the prerequisite skills needed to succeed, whether they go directly into the workforce or continue their studies in college. Building off technical skills learned in the middle school program, high schoolers hone their experience to attain certificates such as the FAA Part 107 Unmanned Aerial (Drone) Pilot, or participate in general avionics classes in conjunction with Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology.
Educating and preparing the next generation of aerospace professionals requires companies in the aviation industry to invest in mentorship and education programs. During the 2021-22 school year, Lockheed Martin volunteers helped provide guidance and mentorship to WAP classes in StellarXplorers and Rocketry. During the initial year, 12 mentors rotated becoming “regulars” to support the rocketry class and four of them were dedicated to the StellarXplorers class. The mentors showed students the Ansys Systems Took Kit which is software for digital mission engineering and systems analysis that Lockheed Martin uses to control satellites. The students had the opportunity to work on real-life applications and see how they operate within a nationwide competition of over 300 teams.
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WAP mentors not only help guide students in the classroom but also practice for competitions and help secure internships. The Rocketry Program at Wings, now in its second year, continues to have mentors help students build the standard rockets kits, as well as student-designed and 3D-printed fins, nose cones, stabilizers and parachutes. The real-life experience that mentors bring to the students is vital to the student’s development as it allows them to understand more about what day-to-day life is like in the industry. The program has been such a success that WAP students are now returning as mentors.
A collaborative effort between non-profits, educators and aerospace industry companies is necessary to address the labor shortage our industry is facing. This is only the beginning of the challenges the industry may face, and it’s crucial that we all band together to address these growing concerns. Keeping Colorado’s economy thriving requires us to continue investing in the aerospace industry by feeding its talent pipeline. The next generation of aerospace industry professionals are bright, passionate and excited about their futures. Let’s continue to provide them with the skills and opportunities to thrive in this ever-changing industry that is shaping the future of our world.
John Barry is president and CEO and Michelle McMahon is Director of Education/WAP for Wings Over the Rockies Museum. For more information visit, https://wingsmuseum.org/.