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Imminent Workforce Shortage

Opportunity for further standardization and partnership

The size of the commercial aviation workforce is expected to almost double by 20321. Coinciding almost perfectly with large scale retirements of prior generations and the industry’s recent financial instability, many aviation businesses already are struggling to attract and retain qualified staff.

Though indeed a looming issue for the industry, we have had advance warning. A number of industry analysts, IATA experts included, have predicted a sharp increase in air traffic demand, and it is no secret that the ageing baby boomer generation is nearing retirement.

So why have we yet to see any concerted action from the industry? This is not a simple problem, and it certainly does not have a simple solution. But as these projections become reality, we as an industry need to act. The industry has started to address workforce issues in dribs and drabs, though it is unclear how this will provide long-term results.

Efforts have been focused mainly on the most visible aviation professions – pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers – though this is only a fraction of the diverse jobs that the industry supports. As the demand for air traffic grows, so will the many businesses that support the commercial aviation infrastructure.

Training and development is an additional investment for businesses, requiring substantial resources, time, and effort. Like it or not, specialized training is a necessity in our industry - not only to maintain our stringent operating standards, but also to expand our businesses and produce results.

Expecting each business, region, and industry sector to develop its own internal training and development solutions is unrealistic. Cooperation is important for widespread industry issues such as the future of the workforce.

In March, I had the opportunity to participate in discussions with industry leaders on the topic of challenges facing aviation training and development at the ICAO TRAINAIR PLUS Global Symposium. We explored the areas we need to address as an industry to resolve both current and longer term training and development issues.

Together with key stakeholders from ICAO, Airports Council International (ACI), EUROCONTROL and Entry Point North, we discussed challenges that are preventing aviation training from reaching its full potential. Our challenges in training are being addressed, though we cannot lose sight of how we train, where the new talent comes from, and how we will retain it.

To this end, the TRAINAIR PLUS model is being implemented and with success. Under this model, TRAINAIR PLUS members develop course materials known as Standard Training Packages (STPs), which are then validated by ICAO and made accessible to all members. This is one important step toward consistency and the global recognition of standardized training that will certainly benefit the industry. Our colleagues are reporting advances made in this key pivotal area that will turn our challenges into opportunities for the future.

Challenging our approach to training and development

1. How we train

As aviation businesses grow, they will need to have ample resources to train the influx of staff. This will be a challenge for many reasons. Frequent and recurrent training is a requirement for many professions in our industry, further increasing the strain on businesses. For this reason, we have to streamline our training to make it effective, timely, yet affordable for businesses.

Changing skill requirements and new delivery methods make it difficult for trainers to keep up with demand. Rapid technological changes, shifting corporate priorities and high turnover rates make it difficult to adequately prepare and deliver training materials by the time employees need the information and skills. To compound this challenge, we need to do this in a way that is globally consistent.

As internal and external training providers, we need to be able to provide relevant training quickly and when it is needed. We need to be able to quantify the effectiveness of our training: what participants learn and how they use this newly-acquired knowledge, which also needs to be aligned with job performance requirements.

Of great importance is our ability to integrate new technology into our methods to ensure that we meet growing needs. We should be taking advantage of the world’s 1.8 billion social media users and the staggering number of mobile device owners around the globe.

It is also time to define the competencies, skills, and professional needs of aviation job groups other than pilots, technicians, and air navigation services. Professional standards, in the form of professional designations, are an obvious solution. ICAO and IATA have partnered to define professional designations through the ICAO-IATA joint I-Train program.

We also see success in ICAO’s partnerships with ACI and the Airport Management Professional Accreditation Program (AMPAP). Air Navigation Service Providers are further partnering with global experts such as IATA to create these training packages, transforming them into professional designations.

The final piece of the puzzle will involve stronger lobbying of governments, regulators and industry groups to ensure the acceptance and implementation of these professional designations as the expected global standard for aviation.

2. Attracting new talent

Staffing in general will be an issue for many growing businesses. Filling positions will require some creativity from our industry to attract new talent. For most people in aviation, interest to work in the industry started at a young age. Yet, a young person’s awareness of available aviation careers is often focused on the most visible and seemingly glamorous jobs. But what about the many lesser known job opportunities in our industry?

Unlike the handful of certified aviation professions, there are few set paths for many of the other career opportunities available in the industry. Many jobs, especially entry-level jobs in fields such as baggage handling, customer service or ramp handling, have high turnover and offer little hope for career development.

The situation is not much different for management-level positions. University programs most often target professions that are common to large businesses, such as human resources, management or accounting. While such programs can also lead to employment in the aviation sector, what competitive benefits do we offer young graduates who are considering other industries?

The path to follow, as introduced before, is to have a clear set of professional entry points so that newcomers to aviation can plan, choose and implement their own professional growth. A global common standard is key to ensure we attract talent that can be mobile, flexible and with a clear professional future.

3. Retaining talent

Aviation employers are among many in a competitive, international market. Competing for the best talent and professionals on a global scale only becomes more challenging when we speak of developing regions. Businesses there compete with higher growth and higher pay in neighboring countries, thereby losing many of their experienced workers.

The challenges of talent retention are very complex, and I can only hope for future opportunities to probe into the topic of regional and industry migration. Yet again, the development of meaningful job standards, competitive pay, and viable career paths will be a step in the right direction for addressing this very large issue, along with industry, government and private sector collaboration.


Opportunities for partnership

While the industry’s workforce problems and solutions may be multifaceted, we are making progress by working together. Today, we see a number of partnership and collaboration opportunities that did not exist even a few years ago.

Looking forward, we need to balance long-term business strategies with the short-term financial results we too often seek. Thanks to ICAO’s leadership in providing distribution platforms, partnership opportunities and the enhancement of existing frameworks, it is very encouraging to see our industry putting competition aside in order to develop sustainable solutions for the industry as a whole.


Victor de Barrena
Director, IATA Training and Development Institute


1Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders. 1st ed. Oxford Economics, 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

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