The expertise of helicopter pilots represents a critical skill set that is needed by a plethora of industries today. Recently, a study released by the University of North Dakota predicts that there will be a shortfall of 7,649 helicopter pilots in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036. This study seems to suggest that there is a shortage of pilots worldwide, including in Canada, which has the world’s second-largest commercial helicopter market.
Many new and experienced helicopter pilots are expressing difficulty finding a job in the industry. Meanwhile, employers are reporting that it is just as difficult to find qualified pilots. So, what exactly is the issue?
Mark Sribney, a commercial helicopter pilot and experienced backcountry skier from Edmonton, Alberta, has some thoughts on the growing concerns of a potential shortage in Canadian helicopter pilots, including the perspectives of pilots, employers, and other factors.
The Pilots’ Perspective
To begin, the perspective of helicopter pilots is one of frustration and confusion. Many pilots are claiming that the issue at hand is not one of a shortage of pilots, but rather a shortage of meaningful employment for pilots with medium to lower levels of experience. Low time pilots are willing to work for very low wages in exchange for mentorship under more experienced pilots. However, more often than not, the organization’s bottom line or the flight task at hand does not allow for a second pilot in the cockpit, limiting the opportunity for mentorship.
The Employers’ Perspective
More and more employers insist that there is indeed a shortage of pilots and that there is a growing gap in mid-level pilots which Mark Sribney explains is between 1,000 to 2,000 hours worth of accumulated flight time. As a result, many employers are lowering their minimum requirements and basic qualifications while taking on more in-house training, which causes financial strain for the organizations.
Furthermore, there are more pilots retiring from the helicopter industry than there are new pilots joining it and they are taking their experience with them. With fewer individuals suited to the requirements set by helicopter piloting jobs, a massive training strain has been placed upon employers.
Exacerbating the problem is a parallel shortage of fixed-wing aircraft pilots. In order to fill the gap in experienced fixed-wing pilots, the industry is now providing considerable incentives for experienced helicopter pilots wishing to transfer over. Chiefly, the fixed-wing industry is setting its sights on helicopter pilots leaving the military by implementing transition programs with lucrative benefits, providing the necessary cross-training, all while offering higher levels of compensation. In short, the fixed-wing industry is poaching experience from the already stretched helicopter pilot pool. With so much movement within the aviation industry, retention will continue to be a growing issue.
Differences in Experience Levels
A greater number of retiring helicopter pilots compared to the number of newly qualified pilots has created a massive imbalance in the experience levels of pilots within the industry. This has resulted in a reduced capacity for the industry to mentor junior pilots, further straining new pilots and employers.
Mark Sribney shares that the job market is becoming more and more saturated with job postings which demand a level of experience that low to medium flight time pilots cannot meet. The industry as a whole is experiencing frustration. Both from pilots who want to be mentored to increase their aviation experience as well as employers who need to ensure that they hire pilots who have the experience to safely accomplish the task at hand.