Should you sit in a hotel room for any period of time and have the pleasure of hunting through 500 channels of cable TV, it becomes apparent that one can undertake a ‘college course’ in just about anything; from leg waxing to law enforcement. Furthermore, it seems that unless you have the associated piece of paper your chances of employment may be severely compromised. Are aviation degrees worth the time and money to pilots?
1. A Pilot's Tale.
As an unemployed Boeing 737 pilot in his thirties, the collapse of my airline threw up a whole spectrum of new challenges. Career, financial and personal security had taken an unplanned leave of absence and the future seemed a rather murky place. It was a bit like a mid-life crisis without the red convertible. Throughout this period of self-assessment and priority shifting, a new career was always a distinct possibility. It was this examination of all options that led to a visit to my local employment office that is still with me to this day.
As I sat in my best interview suit, the employment officer flicked through my Curriculum Vitae and supporting documentation. He flipped the pages of my green covered ATPL whimsically and even glanced at the log-book that told the tale of over 10,000 hours. Returning to my resume, his face lit up, “You were an Ambulance Officer previously. This might be of use.” This was the first inkling that my dedication to a career in aviation may be worth zip. He then rummaged further through my papers, squinted and asked me, “Have you any tertiary qualifications?” I replied in the negative, but explained that a first class Airline Transport Licence requires years of theoretical and practical application. It called for numerous exams and none of those 50% results that they call a pass in the real world. I then proudly informed him that it was all paid for by my own hard earned dollars. He looked back at the paperwork and then at me, “You were an Ambulance Officer previously. This might be of use.”
It was shortly thereafter that I decided to reassess my options. Fortunately, within months I was able to secure another airline job and many of my previous career issues became mute. Even so, the matter of a tertiary qualification stayed with me as I no longer possessed the naïve, laissez faire ‘aviation job for life’ attitude. It was to this backdrop that I began to research university studies. I discovered that I was fundamentally a ‘mature age’ student, yet this far from guaranteed a place in any course of study. Many required evidence of more recent studies. Catch 22.
Wary of my eggs being in one basket, I reluctantly examined aviation degrees and was pleasantly surprised. My industry experience would be recognised and I could enter a course of post graduate studies; a Masters Degree in Aviation Management. The course was available full time, part time and online. Within the syllabus lay generic subjects such as Project Management that could be of use in any field of endeavour, not just aviation.Additionally, if I established a track record of study in this course, entry to other faculties may be possible as a mature student. I decided to enroll.
2. Formalising Qualifications:
One of my primary motivations for undertaking tertiary studies was to formalise my aviation qualifications. We operate in a specialised industry that can render us highly qualified and thoroughly unemployable. Tertiary qualifications are able to speak the universal language of the workplace and offers a yardstick to those who are unfamiliar with our chosen field of aviation. Some subjects may not bear direct relevance to the world in general, but this is the case for many courses.
What the aviation degree does signal is application. Particularly when studied in conjunction with full time employment, a high degree of resolve and dedication are required. This is recognised by employers, be they airlines or anybody else. Certainly, so does an ATPL, but it does translate into a tangible quantity for many. A high proportion of recruitment staff at airlines are non-pilots and whilst one would hope they understand the commitment required for an ATPL, you can almost guarantee that they understand the effort required for a degree.
3. An Edge:
As we all know, aviation is a highly competitive industry and a good proportion of ‘right time and right place’ doesn’t go astray either. In such a fierce environment, any edge an aspirant can get is time and money well spent. That is not to say that the old-fashioned labour of accumulating hours should be put on the back-burner: far from it. What is worth stating is that if you can apply yourself to gain a qualification above and beyond the next applicant, you stand a good chance of getting the nod on the big day.
It is now possible to obtain a Commercial Pilot Licence through universities and graduate with both a licence and an aviation degree. This would have to be advantageous in the long term. If the opportunity is not there, or the timing is not right, consider studies again at a later date. The flexibility of studies over the internet and recognition of industry experience means that it’s never too late.
Let’s face the facts, aviation and the airlines cannot offer the long term security that they once did. Our world and our industry is in constant state of flux. Global economic meltdowns, low cost carriers, US Chapter 11 operations, terrorism and so on. Unless your crystal ball is extremely well tuned, it is very hard to make any predictions about the future. Remember a little operation called Pan Am? Having been through the collapse of an airline I am aware that you need everything going for you to keep moving forward. Whilst I never could have seen job security being an issue when I was twenty, I certainly can now I’m fifty with four children and sleep better knowing that there are options available to me.
Similarly, I used to be seven foot tall and bulletproof. These days I’m not so tall and definitely not bulletproof. Medical issues have plagued pilots, at times, from a relatively young age. Your medical is your licence. You may blitz every check and simulator session with flying colours, but a stone in the eye from the neighbour’s ride-on mower will put paid to that in a heartbeat. Protecting yourself isn’t about being pessimistic. To the contrary, it’s about peace of mind and the ability to thoroughly enjoy the present. An aviation degree is a very sound form of insurance.
5. There’s more to aviation than flying:
For Beechcraft and Boeings to stay in the air safely, there is a myriad of support staff. In time pilots often develop a taste for management, training, flight safety or projects, such as the introduction of a new type. Such options do not wrench the pilot from the cockpit for life, but offer a challenge and change to routine. These positions are numerous in airlines and often provide an interesting mix that brings about greater job satisfaction but, once again, competition for the jobs can be fierce. An aviation degree not only assists in the application process, but may well provide the individual with the skills to successfully undertake the task.
6. Is it worth it?
Sometimes you can be blessed and waltz through life and career without a hiccup. It is, however, very rare. Furthermore, pilots are inherently a self-critical bunch who hold themselves to higher standards than any Test Officer or Check Captain would ever seek. They need challenges. Tertiary studies seem to offer not only security, but a level of satisfaction that is often sought after by pilots at all levels. Notwithstanding, there is the genuine worth of a degree in the gaining of knowledge and the enhancement of employment and subsequent career potential.
The online component of the aviation degree made it easily accessible from hotel rooms around the world. There was still the ability to attend the campus and assignments and exams were still written long hand and submitted as they have always been. However, the online aviation degree made the course content and lecturers readily available despite the erratic rosters and work schedules of pilots.
The financial cost of a tertiary qualification is not unsubstantial. If it can be gained concurrently with a Commercial Licence, tremendous. If not, it may be a while before the coffers permit the extravagance of further education, however, do not let the passage of time completely extinguish the flame. A degree may be out of reach in the short term, but there are still tremendous courses on offer in Accident Investigation, Safety Management and the like. The main point will always be to build your logbook, but also try to extend your portfolio.
The pursuit of further education is never easy. It is a test of persistence, motivation and resources. The rewards, however, are great and will provide benefits of a varied nature regardless of the stage of your career. A tertiary qualification may land you that job you desire, allow you to start your own enterprise or earn a promotion within the ranks of management. Whatever your particular goals may be, it will certainly provide you with a great degree of satisfaction.