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Old 08-30-2008, 12:55 PM   #1  
rickair7777
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Default Starting a Pilot Career: The New Realities

I have a teenage relative who is interested in a flying career, so I've been putting some thought into how to advise him and guide his decision making. I thought I'd share...

The recent volatility of oil prices has added one more major variable to the future of an industry which already has more than it's fair share of uncertainty.

I entered the industry as a career changer, so my issues were a little different than those of someone age 20 or younger. I had about a 25-30 year horizon to try to predict the future...I also have several marketable skills, so if the airline carpet gets yanked out from under me I will be disappointed...but not broke or facing lifestyle cutbacks (aside from working more). A teenager might be looking at a nearly 50 year timeline. In addition to oil, it's remotely possible that automation might reduce pilot jobs 30+ years down the road.

There are some drawbacks to the industry...

1) The airline business is inherently unstable and unpredictable...this is not going to change. Only the most senior pilots at a select few airlines can reasonably feel secure...assuming they stay healthy.

2) There are many dues to pay and hardships to endure, with no guarantee of reaping the rewards of a job at a good major airline.

3) You will be paid less than your professional peers in other fields for most of your career. For the first 5-10 years, it will be a LOT less.

For these reasons, aviation is a suitable career choice for only the most motivated and enthusiastic. I would always recommend that a young person who is interested in aviation do one simple thing: Get a private pilot license and do some recreational flying BEFORE you commit to a career. Keep your day job and/or stay in school.

Many kids who sign up for ab-initio training programs without having any aviation experience find themselves $50K-$100K in the hole and not really enjoying their new career...big mistake!

Once you have decided to do it, there are a few critical issues to consider. The biggest of these is college...you MUST get a four-year degree before entering aviation. If you don't your career options will be severely limited.

I have always recommended a non-aviation degree in a marketable skill to allow you a fall-back position in the event of a permanent or temporary setback in your aviation career (furlough, medical issues, etc). Some folks say "major in something that interests you, it's all about self-fullfillment". OK, that's all nice and touchy-feely, but unless you intend to be a stay-at-home mom or take over the family business you REALLY need to major in something which will enhance your marketability...this is especially true for pilots, who face more unkowns than most folks. Hopefully you can find something that interests AND is marketable. But if not, remember that aviation is your "fullfillment" and your college major needs to have the potential to catch you if you fall.

But in 2008 it gets worse...even if oil stabilizes, the fact that it CAN spiral out of control for no obvious reason needs to be a cause for concern going forward. For someone with a 50-year timeline I would say not only do you need an education to fall back on, but you probably should maintain an active, marketable skill on the back burner. Most professional jobs are not compatible with an aviation career since they require Monday-Friday attendance, but a few options come to mind which could complement a pilot carer...

- Physician's assistant or Nurse. These skills can easily pull in $100K+, and can be performed on a part-time contract basis. With the aging population, the medical field is about as secure as it gets.

- Computer programming (including web design, databases, etc). You might have to work full-time for a few years to establish yourself, but if you stay current with part-time work, you can easily jump back in if needed.

- Real estate. MANY pilots do this, but the downside is that clients may need you when you're on the road, and both real-estate and airlines tend to follow the economy. If you get furloughed, the real-estate market is probably in the toilet too (see 2008). Also, this works better if you stay in one town and get established, so it limits your mobility.

- If you like to use your hands, you could get into tilework, wood-work, even landscaping. Not white-collar, but can be flexible and provide an income.

- Military Reserves. If you can qualify for a military flying slot, that is the best complement to your civilian flying career...and federal laws solves all scheduling conflicts with your civilian job.

- Small business owner. Downside is that it limits your mobility, unless it's a web-based business.

There are many other options, but the point is that it might be best to face the hash realities up front, get the education/training at the start of your career so your fallback position is established. You don't want to be a furloughed 35 years old with a spouse, house, and kids applying at Starbucks or loading your lawn-mower and rake into your pickup truck.

Another advantage here is that you can pay for flight training while establishing your other career, and avoid some debt.

Essentially what I'm suggesting is career path which involves an intentional career change, well before age 30. The first career should be carefully selected so that it can be maintained while flying to provide extra income, and as a fallback option if needed.

It's too bad that this is what the airline business has come to, but I would have trouble sleeping at night if I did not have other options.
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