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rickair7777 08-30-2008 12:55 PM

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.

usmc-sgt 08-30-2008 01:13 PM

Great post Rick and some well thought out input and advice for the trainwreck called aviation that we all know and love.

de727ups 08-30-2008 01:13 PM

The career tends to ebb and flow with the economy. It's always been that way. I agree with many of your points but I'd still encourage a kid that is interested in the career rather than tell him to run away. Never do it for the money. Do it because you can't see yourself doing anything else.....

Cubdriver 08-31-2008 07:05 AM

Great post Rick. You put a lot of great thoughts on here that help people make the right decision. You also have a fair and balanced approach to everything which lends it credibility. I prefer this way of thinking; namely that all things should be considered when examining an issue and not sell anything short. Try and understand the unpopular view before dismissing it. This makes you better able to really see what is going on and better able to act in an informed way. If you fight a particular view without really entertaining it for a while you cannot really understand it. In engineering I always have a set of goals in mind, but when a little voice says something else might be smarter I consider it and often enough it turns out to be the best solution.

GoMountaineers 08-23-2012 05:11 AM

Quote:

Originally Posted by rickair7777 (Post 452909)
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.

Still the best career advice posting on here.

dl773 08-23-2012 06:00 PM

I especially agree with a degree in something marketable. If you are undecided, go for something like accounting or finance. Having a good base in money management will serve you well all your life, even in planning/considering a career as a pilot. Actually, ESPECIALLY as a pilot, because it will help you understand the financial risks better. I know I would have been much more "lost" with my research into becoming a pilot if it wasn't for my background in accounting/finance.

Whatever you do, don't waste your degree with some easy major.

USMCFLYR 08-23-2012 06:31 PM

HOLY REVIVAL!

So rickair7777 - what happened to this teenage family member?
Still interested in aviation or has moved on to snowboarding? :D

USMCFLYR

pilot0987 08-23-2012 07:15 PM

Nice post interested to know the outcome.

rickair7777 08-24-2012 06:50 AM

Quote:

Originally Posted by USMCFLYR (Post 1250560)
HOLY REVIVAL!

So rickair7777 - what happened to this teenage family member?
Still interested in aviation or has moved on to snowboarding? :D

USMCFLYR


In college now, one degree change so far. Not into flying at the moment.

rickair7777 10-30-2014 09:42 AM

Somebody asked me to update this thread today, so here goes...What's changed since 2008?

The good news:

- Oil/fuel prices are *somewhat* more stable for at least the mid-term due to increased global production, and specifically increased US production as well as improvements in energy and fuel conservation.

- There have been no ground-breaking advances in automation, and in fact some DoD UAS programs have struggled to deliver the goods at a reasonable cost. I would pretty much rule out unmanned airliners in the next 30-40 years (remote possibility that you might see cargo planes). Single-pilot airliners are not an option until you develop a fully- autonomous airliner since pilot incapacitation would require full autonomy as a backup. People will debate this, but the debate is not about technology, it's about cost vs. benefit. Also there is the cultural issue...even airline managers will be afraid to get rid of pilots because then THEY have to accept full responsibility for the successful outcome of each flight. Unmanned airliners will happen eventually, but there is no discernible roadmap or timeline.

- Mandatory airline retirements dictate improved hiring opportunities for the next 10-15+ years.

The not-so-good news:

- Airlines have gotten better at controlling costs, and are now absolutely brutal when it comes to managing their regional feeders. Despite the alleged pilot shortage, no regional can be considered a secure career for anyone under the age of 50. If you have to do regionals, have a plan to get in, get your time, and get out...don't get stuck, set yourself a hard deadline and walk away before you invest too much time.

- Major hiring: Major hiring has always been a bit of a crap-shoot, but IMO it's even more so now with the advent of web-based applicant and psych screening tools that weed out applicants before a real person even knows they exist. It's asking a lot to commit all the time, money, and lost opportunity cost knowing that you'll have to roll the dice 10-15 years down the road...and your entire career will depend on an opaque computer program written by some dude who is probably the furthest thing from aviation material that you could imagine.


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