Bizav Mulls Recruitment, Training Challenges Post-COVID

Stansted Airport College opened at the airfield in 2018 and offers a range of aerospace-specific courses.
Credit: Stansted Airport College

The jury is still out on whether business aviation will see long-term benefits from the raft of redundancies caused across the aerospace sector from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For now, long-term recruitment difficulties have eased as experienced personnel newly let go from commercial operators seek a new berth. 

What is already clear, though, experts say, is that the sector will continue to face challenges around recruitment—and that whatever the effects of the pandemic will be, they will be felt throughout the training supply chain. 

The problem will be felt acutely within the business aviation sector because of the high proportion of staff it tends to source from other parts of the aerospace industry, they say. 

“If you’re an executive right now, you’re taking a short-term view because you’re trying to stabilize your business,” says Richard Brown, founder and managing director of Naveo, a London-based aerospace industry consultancy firm. “That means potentially furloughing or firing pilots and mechanics. The issue then is, if or when the recovery comes, will they have enough trained personnel with the right qualifications, the right type ratings, etc., to support their operations when they want to add capacity back?”

Business owners have to weigh the costs of retaining experienced personnel through a downturn against the risk of being under-resourced for recovery.  

“It’s a fine balance between what they cut and what they save,” Brown says. “They realize that learned experience is valuable, but there’s no point having experience if you can’t fly and there’s no passengers.” 

“I call it a perfect storm,” says Marc Bailey, CEO of the British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA), a trade group. “Normally speaking, you have winners and losers, and you can reinvest people back into aviation. This time, there won’t be the jobs. People will go into retirement, or move into doing other things, and you won’t be able to attract them back.”

Bailey also fears that the industry’s current travails will have an effect on new entrants to aviation. 

“If we let [experienced] people go, and we’ve not backfilled below; and if we go back to the flying-hour rate we had previously, we’d be in deep trouble,” he says. “We won’t have pilots. We won’t have ground staff. We won’t be able to match the growth that we’re going to get.”

Reassuringly, though, the early-stages training supply pipeline, as of yet, is showing no signs of drying up. 

“Aviation has traditionally been a cyclical business: it’s just, since 2008, people might have forgotten that,” Brown says. “People who like aviation like aviation—it runs like kerosene through our veins. It’s still perceived to be a well-paid, skilled and well-respected profession to go in to.”

The observation is backed up by hard data from Stansted Airport College, a facility opened at, and in partnership with, the Stansted airport in 2018. The college offers students a range of aviation specialist courses.

“At the moment our applications are still looking very good—we may be over-subscribed,” for the academic year starting in September, says Wendy Martin, the college’s head. “We’ve seen a very small number of individuals—I think we’re talking only two or three learners at the moment—who have said they’d like to defer for a year to keep their options open. But studying an aviation-related program doesn’t necessarily limit your options, because you’re developing a really broad range of knowledge and essential work-ready skills.”

Nevertheless, the college has a “significant amount of work and planning to do” to prepare itself for the new term in September, Martin says. But certain inherent advantages, such as issuing all students with Apple iPads and training staff for digital learning, means the facility will be in a strong position to blend online and face-to-face teaching should UK social-distancing regulations require it. Plans have also been brought forward to introduce a postgraduate course, in part to offer additional training to 2020 graduates whose job offers may have fallen victim to COVID-related recruitment freezes. Echoing Brown’s view on the industry’s cyclical nature, Martin notes that students enrolling with the college in September will not be entering the aerospace job market until the anticipated recovery will be well underway. She argues that now is the time to double down on training. 

“It’s important that we keep training people now, rather than wait until vacancies are there and train them then,” Martin says. “We have strategically managed the numbers on each program to be compatible with the number of vacancies. We don’t want to saturate the market so people can’t get jobs—we want to make sure there is a clear line of sight [to future employment] for young people.” 

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.