As was heavily discussed in the comments to my last post, prospects are particularly bleak for the newest entrants to the piloting profession - those who have just completed their training, or are in the middle of it, or have just started. The traditional first timebuilding jobs are somewhat scarcer than in years past, and the few new openings are quickly snapped up by experienced, out-of-work pilots. With a pocketful of expensive licenses and ratings but little chance of getting a flying job that will support them or even build time, these pilots have to be frightened at the prospect of these conditions lasting for several more years. It's as if they are seeing their careers die before they ever began.
Here's the good news: aviation has been a cyclical industry throughout its existence. Things will get better, and when they do I think they will get dramatically better. The other thing to recognize is that there have been plenty of other downturns that resulted in conditions just like these, and many pilots, including those at the major airlines, have experienced similar stagnation early in their careers. The 70s, 80s, and 90s each had a number of slump years where nothing was moving for civilian pilots. The post-9/11 downturn was the worst of all, but it mostly affected pilots at the major airline level. Their misfortune resulted in large growth for regional and low-cost airlines, and that kept things moving for low-time pilots. We've become so used to plentiful opportunities for new entrants over the last 15 years that this downturn sounds to many like the thundering crash of the career door slamming closed, never to reopen. It will; it always has.
The intent of this post, however, is not so much encouragement as practical advice that new pilots can use right now. Most of the career advice out there, particularly from the eternally-optimistic flight training industry, assumes that jobs will be available and one will be able to advance one's career steadily, if not downright speedily. That's clearly not the case and vastly changed conditions call for drastically altered career strategies.
It seems to me that the worst of the carnage is over and, unless certain airlines go belly-up, we won't see large numbers of additional furloughs. Still, I foresee things remaining essentially static for several years until the first wave of Age-65 retirements begin and the economy gains enough traction to prompt widespread airline growth. Nobody is really going anywhere else; most are stuck in whatever position they hold now. Time is essentially frozen; we're all just playing the waiting game. That's a lot easier for those of us who have decent jobs and a livable wage; for the newest entrants, it's nearly unbearable. I suspect that many of these will give up and leave the industry before things turn around. Those who hope to still have an aviation career on the other side are engaged in a grinding war of attrition. Survival is the name of the game; putting oneself in a position to benefit from the upswing is an important but secondary consideration. The following are some tips that I think will help with these twin goals.
- If you currently have a job outside of aviation, keep it. If you've already quit but have a marketable skill-set that will allow you to get a decent job for the next 2-4 years, concentrate on doing so. I know that most career-changers are getting into aviation precisely because they couldn't stomach their old jobs; you need to approach this with the mindset that it is a temporary, necessary step to launching your aviation career. You will quit as soon as you can get a full-time aviation job, but in the meantime it is necessary to have an income stream to live on, train on, and save some money for the paycut your first aviation job will inevitably entail.
- If you have no marketable skill outside of aviation, consider going (or going back) to school to get one. You'll experience more than one downturn in your career and you'll be much better prepared for the next one if you have a second skill to fall back on. If the major airlines are your goal, most require a four-year degree anyway. Meanwhile, a few years away from this labor market isn't a bad thing; student loans, which will be deferred during your schooling, can include living expenses and even flight training expenses if your school offers aviation courses. I'm going to definitively say that you should stay away from expensive aviation programs like UND and Embry-Riddle; the student loan debt will be simply too crushing once you're out in the "real world," potentially making little money in entry-level jobs for several years. If you need to complete flight training while in school, look for a state school with cheap tuition and a small aviation department that contracts out flight training to a local FBO, and either get an aviation minor to go along with your non-aviation major, or take the aviation courses on an elective basis.
- Don't rush your flight training. The flight training industry insists that because "seniority is everything," you ought to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for their accelerated 9-month programs. If you were beginning your training at the start of an upswing they might have a point, but in this case finishing early just means that much more time sitting unemployed, with more debt (or less of a nest-egg to live on)! If you can save money by searching out a good instructor at a smaller flight school and training part-time while still working outside aviation and paying as you go, you'll find yourself well positioned to make the jump to full-time flying as timebuilding jobs open up in a few years.
- This is connected to the last point, but if there's any way it is humanly possible to complete your training debt-free or with as little debt as possible, do it. Jobs like flight instructing, freight dogging, and regional airline FO don't pay much, but it generally is enough for a single person (or married with a working spouse) to live on - unless they're also paying $500-1000/month to service student loan debt. Not having that hanging over you will really free up options later on, and right now in this industry you need every bit of flexibility you can get.
- Building flight time after earning your ratings is important, but in the absence of available full-time jobs, concentrate on maintaining currency. Landing that first job with minimal flight time has always been tough, but it's a lot easier if you can show that you've been at least consistently flying. You may need to rent an airplane on your own dime a few times a month. Use the time to improve the skills needed for whatever full-time job you are pursuing. In other words, if you hope to get an instructing job, fly from the right seat and bring your sister along for free lessons.
- There's a natural tendency to concentrate on full-time jobs that quickly fill the logbook and give you the satisfaction of living off of your hard-earned certificates. However, it may be a lot easier to find a part-time job that allows you to keep your non-aviation job while still maintaining currency. Flight instruction, banner towing, and skydiver hauling are three entry-level jobs that all tend to be a lot busier on the weekends. In the case of instructing it can be difficult convincing larger schools to hire you for weekends only, but it's more common at smaller FBOs, especially in rural areas. Being out at the airport at the time when most pilots are makes it that much easier to network and sniff out that full-time job you really want, anyways.
- If you can't find anyone to hire you, consider becoming your own boss. Some schools and FBOs take freelance instructors, as do virtually all flying clubs. A more extreme example - but potentially very cost-effective - is buying your own airplane and setting up shop as a Flight School of One. The last few years a lot of larger schools and FBOs sold their older airplanes in favor of new-fangled glass cockpit equipment, and now find that they've priced themselves out of the masses' reach in the downturn. There is a niche to be exploited here by the savvy entrepreneur. You could potentially buy an airplane, do most of your training in it, instruct in it, and then sell it for very close to what you have into it. Your total cost of flying will be a fraction of what it'd be at an accelerated program and airplane ownership will give you a great deal more real-world experience.
- Be willing to relocate, globally if need be. The aviation scene might be dead in your city but it may not be a state or two over. If you are a dual citizen or have the right to work in another country, take a very close look at any opportunities there; although the downturn is global, it's mostly US pilots that are suffering the triple whammy of a poor economy, lack of retirements due to age 65, and a glut of qualified pilots. Sponsored expat positions used to be limited to those possessing significant Part 121 command time in specific aircraft types, but this is changing; as foreign countries seek to become more self-sufficient in pilot staffing, they are starting to set up training programs for local pilots on their own soil, creating a need for foreign instructors. I realize relocation can be a problem for those with families, but let's be completely honest: by choosing an aviation career for yourself, you've already sentenced your family to sustained poverty, frequent absences, and perpetual instability. A change of scenery that gets you past the difficult early stages quicker is going to be better for your family in the long run.
- Use this extra waiting time wisely. Don't just run out the clock waiting for things to turn around, actively do everything you can to prepare yourself for when they do. This doesn't have to be expensive; you don't need to fly twice a day at a 9-month zero-to-hero program to eat, sleep, and breath aviation. Read every text you can get your hands on, particularly regarding advanced subjects you won't necessarily cover in training at a small flight school. If you can develop a very thorough understanding of subjects like meteorology and aviation weather, aerodynamics, transport category systems, long-range and oceanic navigation, aeromedical and physiological research, and safety & risk management programs before you even apply for that first job, you'll be far ahead of the average pilot. Likewise, network relentlessly, both at the airport and online. In 2007's job market, basically any bozo with a pulse could get hired at an airline, but in an economy like this it takes knowing people to land even a flight instructing job. The contacts you make and maintain will prove even more valuable in subsequent stages of your career.