The Aviation Skills Crisis

25th January 2023

New year, new job – we’ve all heard it. A fleeting glance through any social media in January 2023 does show that the annual trend is continuing however, recruiters across the aviation sector are hinting that attracting and retaining the right talent might be tougher than ever.

In 2020 airlines and airports laid off tens of thousands of staff as Covid 19 brought global travel to standstill. Our industry has suffered more than most throughout the pandemic, airlines grounded entire fleets, (although it’s great to see many A380’s now gracing the skies again) airports ceased operations (welcome back Southend) and for the first time ever we needed a genuine reason to travel and permission from a country to enter.

In a bid to reduce staffing numbers and avoid ongoing costs many organisations also offered lower salaries, unpaid leave and packages for those nearing retirement.

Unsurprisingly this led to many employees in our industry forced to look for jobs elsewhere, from baggage handlers to pilots we all had industry contacts who were now lugging boxes in an Amazon warehouse or delivering online grocery shopping.

Along with people leaving our industry through no fault or choice of their own we are also contending with the fact that for two entire years no new trainees were brought into businesses to fly, engineer or handle aircraft. Thus the gap has widened. Most major carriers would have had a rolling trainee program to feed their workforce from the bottom up. Typically these employees would become loyal, many with training funding locking them into an organization for a minimum term.

Some companies were able to take advantage of government furlough schemes and whilst these helped they did not solve the issues. Even prior to the pandemic companies across the globe were reporting a significant pilot shortage with many pilots reaching retirement age and not enough newly trained personnel ready to climb into the cockpit. The time and money it takes an individual to be trained to a standard to be recruited by a commercial airline is prohibitive and off putting to many.

Through 2022 while travel returned and Brits in particular showed that the pent up demand for travelling was real we saw more gloom across the media as airlines and airports in particular struggled to deliver their service. Customer experience hit rock bottom in many European airports due to a shortage of staff across handling and crew. So many of those who had been forced to leave the industry through covid had not returned, some of this was due to airlines not being ready to increase capacity and operating with minimum crew but some was simply down to employees realising that they could get paid just as well outside of the industry without the 3am starts and weekend working.

For flight crew and engineers who were forced to take a career break from the skies struggling to keep licenses current was a real challenge. Finding training centers and simulators even for those able to fund their own recurrent training and type ratings became a logistical nightmare through Covid.

As we now see the industry returning to something closer to the norm recruitment opportunities are appearing again with major global players and smaller regional airlines but for these roles competition is high. Airlines went out of business during Covid, many downsized and consolidated and fleet expansion plans are on hold.

Those employees returning must have their training brought back up to date, all taking time and in many circumstances with limited capacity for simulators and line training.

For those looking to return into roles requiring security clearances processing is also proving challenging and taking time, this maybe off putting for some lower paid roles including ground handling staff who may simply decide to do something else rather than wait to be able to do their jobs again.

For many employees who left the industry returning simply isn’t an option. Those who knew nothing other than 3am commutes to the airport on frosty mornings and who often missed key events and family milestones have realised that there is another world out there. They have now got jobs working more sociable hours, allowing them to easily plan with families and friends as they are no longer at the mercy of a monthly roster, flight delays, cancellations and bad weather.

The industry on a whole perhaps does not hold the same appeal as it once did. The days of travelling the world on paper ticket ID90 concessions with your family are long gone, even if an employer still offers them with reduced capacity and no paper ticket to allow any airline with a seat to accept you the risk of being stranded at an airport with a standby ticket is significantly increased.

Covid forced the non aviation world to review working practices, flexible or hybrid working is a given in many organisations now with people able to work from home, or even a holiday home somewhere. Of course for many this will never be an option in the aviation industry but as employees seek a better work life balance and many re evaluate what is important after the past couple of years this will impact our industries ongoing recruitment.

For aspiring “avgeeks” you cannot help but wonder if them witnessing the recent turmoil the industry has faced has put people off joining all together. The industry appears unstable and while no one could have ever predicted the scale of grounding during the pandemic by the same token no one can every guarantee it will not happen again.

As we move into 2023 airlines, airports and ground handlers in particular are continuing to recruit at pace, job fairs are being held across the world aimed at luring the next generation of aviation talent, sign on bonuses are being offered. The industry will need to work hard to be viewed an attractive career option which will provide long term stability. There is no quick fix and our industry will need to adapt to invest in training and the well being of employees to be seen as an industry of choice for the future.

An insightful article written for us by Linzi Barber.