Tom Frazier has seen his fair share of pilots pass through eastern Oregon’s Ontario Municipal Airport, which he owns and operates. Although they fly a variety of aircraft – including single-engine planes, medical helicopters, corporate jets and crop dusters – he has noticed that they have one thing in common.
“These pilots are all my age, in their mid-60s,” Tom says.
That worries him because not enough young people are being groomed to replace them, he says.
It’s more than small, regional airports that are observing a labor shortage. The national commercial airline industry, too, is uneasy about the scarcity of young pilots coming up through the ranks.
Boeing, for example, said there would soon be “unprecedented” demand for personnel to fly and maintain tens of thousands of new commercial jets in its 2013 Pilot and Technician Outlook. This major aerospace company projected a need for 498,000 new commercial airline pilots and 556,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years. What’s more, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipated the industry would likely lose 800 pilots in the next 10 years, largely to retirements.
Aiming to change that, Tom contacted the Oregon State University Extension Service’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences‘ 4-H youth development program in Malheur County and offered to start an aviation club.
“I felt that if we could get kids interested in aviation at a young age, when they got to college they would be in a good position to know what they needed to do to train for a career in aviation,” he says.
College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ 4-H youth educator Barbara Brody jumped at the opportunity. So in 2012, Brody created a club dedicated to science, engineering and career exploration. It’s open to children as young as kindergarten, who might construct paper airplanes. Older youth up to 12th grade learn about careers from guest speakers in jobs ranging from pilots to smoke jumpers. Youth might also assemble model rockets and tour airports.
It’s been an eye-opening experience for Brody as well as the kids. She’s an experienced 4-H educator but did not come from an aviation industry background.
“I’ve learned that there are so many industries connected to aviation, not just aerospace,” Barabra says. “All these big companies, including many in the agricultural industry, have corporate jets that need pilots and mechanics. And there are the medical helicopters that need medics and technicians.”
Barbara leads a core circle of 13 youth who opened their club to the community April 5. More than 60 community members flocked to the club’s Aerospace Field Day. Attendees built and launched rockets, stared wide-eyed at corporate jets and helicopters, chatted with pilots and mechanics and witnessed helicopters blast off.
Experiences like this spark the excitement of siblings Braden and Jaylee Tschida, 8 and 10, for science and engineering. They joined the club a year ago.
“It has always been a big deal to drive by the airports and watch the planes take off and land, so the next logical step was to check out what else goes on at the airport,” says their grandmother, Jan Tschida. “The kids attend a private school, so it gave them the opportunity to meet others in town their ages. They met new 4-H’ers, those with different interests than the livestock kids they already have contact with.”
The club has also provided insight into a new field for 14-year-old Shelby Wintle.
“It’s made me more aware of all the jobs in aviation. Flying is only part of it. We learned about the parts of the airplane and toured different planes,” says Shelby, who is considering a career as an airplane mechanic.
Those stories are good news to Tom Frazier. Technology is changing so fast in the industry that up-and-comers must adapt quickly, he says.
“We’ve got to start with young kids who will develop the mindset for it and get excited about pursuing careers in aviation,” Tom says.