Addressing aviation workforce shortages is a hot topic of conversation these days. The issue was raised at almost every major industry forum in 2014. Studies suggest that with air transportation demand set to double by 2030, nearly a million new pilots, maintenance technicians, air traffic controllers and cabin crew will be needed to keep the industry moving forward. However, current recruitment efforts are reported to fall short of this figure. In response to this shortfall, the British Military Aviation Authority recently stated that only a "limited assurance" of air safety could be provided.

Current workforce shortages stem from a universal demographic phenomenon known as global aging. The product of people having fewer children while living longer, it means that as older workers retire, an insufficient number of younger workers are available to replace them. According to a Boston Consulting Group report, 2010 saw 0.3 people retiring for each person entering the workforce; however by 2050, that number will rise to 0.7. With a global economic footprint of some $2.4 trillion, the consequences of workforce shortages in the aviation industry are especially problematic.

Various approaches have been taken thus far to address the issue. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is focusing on cultivating youth interest in the aviation industry through a series of outreach programs. A complimentary approach addressing the geographic inaccessibility of education has been taken by Utah Valley University. Potential recruits can now access formal training courses in aviation management, flight training and more, anywhere internet access is available. Airlines have also started offering more generous fiscal incentives that encourage recruitment and retention. For example, Chinese carriers are reported to be luring American pilots with financial packages in excess of $270,000, a sum roughly double what those pilots might receive back home. However, these efforts offer only short-term relief because workforce shortages stem from more global demographic changes.

Hence, the question the aviation industry must address is not how can workforce size be increased. Rather, how can growing demand be met using fewer workers? One answer is technology. For example, systems like satellite-based communications enable aircraft to report their geographic position more accurately. More accurate position reports opens up the possibility of fewer air traffic controllers handling larger volumes of aircraft because these aircraft can now fly closer together without safety being affected. Technological advances can also help airlines cope with pilot shortages by delegating tasks historically performed by humans to onboard automation. This is evident in cockpits today where navigator and flight engineer positions have been eliminated, due in part to improvements in instrument design and engine reliability.

Efforts using technology to ease the pressure placed on human capital have historically faced opposition from labor unions, who view automation as a threat to job security. As Aviation Week’s Pierre Sparaco reports, Air France was forced to cancel a Boeing 737 order after its pilots vigorously resisted the idea of implementing two versus three person cockpits. However, according to an Ernst and Young report, workforce shortages are giving employees “a greater say in how work is assigned, assessed and rewarded.” This social contract change means that previous apprehensions about using technology can and must give way to the practical matter of ensuring safety in the skies. The sustainability of the industry depends on it.