Uplink ALPA - The Voice of Aviation

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter. As of April 2020 Uplink ALPA is a 6-monthly publication.

Pilot career progression study reports back

New Zealand’s approach to pilot training and career progression needs a shake-up if we are to meet the demands of the aviation industry and continue to make such a significant contribution to the country’s economy, according to an important new industry study. 

NZALPA and Massey University School of Aviation recently completed the report of their study into “Pilot Progression in New Zealand”. 

The study targeted the 3328 New Zealand citizens or permanent residents who were issued with a fixed wing New Zealand Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) from 2000-2018. There were almost 700 respondents (based here and overseas). 

A major finding was that a large number of CPL graduates were giving up flying because they could not find employment as a pilot. Quitting the industry left them with significant debt and also resulted in a major loss of potential to the industry and a waste to the country as a whole. CAA data shows nearly the same number of professional pilots now as 20 years ago (~2800). Only retirements and those going overseas have been replaced. It is estimated that as few as 30% of those trained are now employed as pilots in New Zealand. 

NZALPA developed a range of recommendations, which it believes will result in significant improvements and better equip New Zealand to face the strong demand for pilots. 

“The New Zealand and international pilot supply issue is extremely well documented,” says report author David Griffin, “What is less well known is that between 2000-2018, here in New Zealand, we have been training too many pilots for the current career paths available here. This doesn’t mean we should train less pilots, as airlines are now recruiting at rates exceeding net pilot supply; but it does mean we need to think about who we are recruiting, how we support them while they are training and what steps are in place to help them navigate from flight training school to airline seat – the ultimate goal of most of them.” 

The study shows that changes made about 10 years ago to student loans for aviation courses has resulted in fewer loans, leading to less students at a time when demand for pilots is ramping up. Airlines are now snapping up pilots with fewer hours than they previously required, and much of this recruitment is from the ranks of experienced flight instructors. 

However recent graduates consistently report difficulty finding employment. This is mainly due to many of the jobs previously available to lower hour pilots such as tourist and adventure flying moving to more sophisticated aircraft or helicopters. The most successful path to employment is now flight instructing. ‘There are simply not enough entry level jobs for all the pilots we are training’ the summary notes. 

The study highlights the challenges many pilots faced in getting their first job, with many quitting at this stage. Almost half of the respondents said they’d also considered giving up their pursuit of an aviation career. 

Inability to find work as a pilot doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the industry. Some of the study respondents who were not working as pilots reported they were working in roles such as ATC, airline and airport operations, CAA or RPAS ops. 

Career pathway issues were a common theme in the study findings. A significant majority of the study respondents reported the industry didn’t provide accurate information about the pathway steps from CPL to employment, didn’t paint an accurate picture of aviation working conditions (particularly in GA and flight training) and they hadn’t received sufficient information about barriers to career progression such as ongoing costs of staying current, travel and relocation required to get work and the cost of supporting themselves and their family while working. 

“While still inconclusive, these findings highlight a possible problem with the industry's ability to retain pilots after completion of their CPL, especially where they cannot gain employment within a reasonable time period or where employment conditions make such employment untenable or undesirable,” says NZALPA President, Tim Robinson. 

The study also asked respondents whether they had moved overseas to seek work as a commercial pilot. 32% had done so, and nearly all found employment. Two-thirds of them had since returned to New Zealand while one third were still currently working overseas. The attraction of working overseas was more job opportunities (especially for low-hour CPLs) and more favourable pay and working conditions. 

To stem the loss of experienced flying instructors and to ensure an adequate supply of pilots to airlines, action is required to enable more CPL graduates to progress beyond training into successful employment.  

“We need to find ways to help these pilots stay here in New Zealand while they get their early experience. If they need to go offshore to get work, there is always a risk they may not return and are lost to our local industry” says Robinson. 

The cost of flight training is a major issue, particularly since changes to the student loan scheme for aviation courses. Previously students could borrow the total cost of their flight training, but there are now caps on borrowing. The study notes that the changes were intended to reduce the costs to government and to reduce demand for flight training. Various aviation industry groups, including NZALPA, are now seeking to have the Government reconsider this policy in light of the strong demand for pilots. The current situation creates a barrier to entry that prevents a more diverse range of student candidates from considering flight training. 

Robinson explained, “Many doctors and dentists also graduate with large student loans but the difference is that they are usually directly employed at the end of their training without the need to self-fund hundreds of contact hours like pilots require. Many pilots get those hours up while working in other jobs at the same time to pay their bills and try to service their student loan. Government, industry and unions like ourselves need to work together to find solutions to this dilemma.” 

“This study is a very significant development in a fast-developing industry. All of us in the industry need to take the time to read it carefully and think about changes that we could support or help to make,” says Robinson. 

“At very least, we need to ensure the study is well distributed and its contents understood by the industry, by policy makers and by the government.” 

Recommendations of the study

  • Creation of airline cadet training programmes recruiting directly from flight training, with airlines and CAA designing and specifying airline-specific training for those pilots. 
  • Industry-wide promotion of aviation careers to create a larger pool from which to select an appropriate number of the best candidates. 
  • Government adjustments to aviation student loans and deferral of interest on loans where pilots have to find work overseas. 
  • Government and industry steps to reduce the total cost of flight training. 
  • Recognition of flight instruction as a valuable part of the aviation industry with better pay and conditions.
  • Industry and government joining forces to support data collection and analysis that will inform funding and training and recruiting decisions. 

The findings of report will be shared and discussed with airlines, Government, the CAA and industry stakeholders. 

The full study contains more comprehensive information and will be made available on the NZALPA website soon.

Key results

  • 89% of respondents were male, 11% female. 
  • 79% completed their flight training before the age of 24. 
  • 72% listed an airline position as their major career goal. 
  • 23% completed an Airline Integration Course as part of their training. 
  • 74% of respondents were currently employed as commercial pilots. 
  • 59% of those employed were working for a New Zealand-based airline. 
  • 21% were working in their first job as commercial pilots. 
  • 38% had been or were currently working for their training provider. 
  • 46% of pilots had, at some point, considered giving up their pursuit of an aviation career. 
  • 78% of those employed as pilots had worked for three or more different employers. 
  • 12% of respondents were working as pilots overseas.



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