Richard Smith, director of Talentview Aviation, reflects on the relationship between industry and education, and looks at how UK further and higher education providers can prepare the next generation of aviation workforce.
The last week of October was Generation Aviation Week, a sector-wide campaign running as part of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) wider Generation Aviation initiative. During this year’s event, Talentview Aviation hosted two webinars intended to help bridge the gap between the aviation sector and further and higher education providers.
The first of the Careers Under the Radar - What Really Makes the Aviation Industry Tick sessions, hosted in partnership with Universities UK (UUK), brought industry and education stakeholders together to explore the role of universities and graduates in meeting employers’ skills needs, as well as the wider net zero and sustainability agenda.
The higher education webinar was chaired by Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, chair of the Institute of Cancer Research and former president of UUK, and featured representatives from British Airways, British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA), Heathrow Airport, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the British Aviation Group (BAG), London Geller College of Hospitality and Tourism (UWL), City University London and the University of Salford.
The second webinar, focussing on further education, was chaired by Karen Spencer, principal of Harlow College, Stansted Airport Aviation Academy and chair of the APPG (STEM). Speakers from British Airways, the CAA, BBGA and the BAG also took part in the further education webinar alongside London Luton Airport.
Both webinars provided insight into the current challenges faced by industry and education when it comes to promoting aviation careers to the students, and the resulting opportunities for reviewing and improving existing processes.
Improving awareness of aviation roles
Post-pandemic, aviation is having to promote itself as a desirable sector to work in, something it has never had to do before on this scale. This includes raising awareness of the breadth of roles and opportunities among the next generation of the workforce – and of potential employees’ suitability for the sector.
One of the biggest challenges is a lack of understanding about how degrees that appear to bear no relevance to aviation can in fact be applied within the sector.
Courses such as theology, law, business, philosophy and history, teach students key problem solving and analytical skills valued by the industry, for instance – it’s simply a case of informing students of which types of jobs utilise these skills.
HR, operations, planning, logistics, and business continuity are just some of the departments within any organisation that require these broader skills and many employers have established graduate programmes that will help to develop them further.
A potential stumbling block, however, is the misconception that to work for an aviation employer, graduates must have an aviation-based degree. This can deter potential applicants. There’s an increasing need for multidisciplinary skills, however – such as wildlife management, noise management and cyber security – which are likely to be more appealing to graduates.
Higher education providers participating in the webinar indicated their willingness to work with employers to effectively communicate the breadth of roles on offer. Further education providers, meanwhile, largely felt that due to the vocational nature of courses, students are more broadly aware of the wider roles across the industry. They were in agreement with their higher education counterparts that clear guidance from industry would be helpful to support informed choices on career opportunities.
Short- versus long-term needs
While industry and education are ultimately going in the same direction, they are working to very different timescales. It can be hard to get on the same page when some businesses are just trying to get through the next few months. The aviation sector is looking at how to address issues in the here and now, whereas the education sector is looking further into the future and is particularly focused on preparing for advancements in sustainability and technology.
This of course makes sense. The aviation sector is still recovering from the impact of the pandemic and, understandably, is trying to make progress quickly whereas universities need to put together courses that equip students for future jobs that may not even exist yet. The students starting university in 2023/24 won’t be entering employment until three or four years after that, by which stage the employment landscape could look entirely different.
It was suggested that this could be an opportunity to move away from universities simply ‘responding’ to industry needs and instead working more collaboratively on all elements of the curriculum, as well as its delivery and assessment strategy to engage students with industry.
Further education providers echoed this sentiment of working collaboratively, but wanted to work more in line with the pace set by industry to create more focussed units and relevant qualifications. They felt this was particularly urgent because of defunded qualifications – for example, the BTEC L3 aviation operations suite is disappearing from 2024 – which will see any tangible aviation qualification that colleges could use as part of a broad programme (that then leads to more specific aviation roles) vanish.
Bringing talent to the UK
Universities in the UK don’t have trouble attracting international students but there is concern that these skills are being lost, with new graduates feeling that there are no employment opportunities in the country.
While the post-study work visa was initially seen as a step in the right direction, it has instead presented an obstacle for international students, with some universities arguing that its comparatively short length (two years) makes companies reluctant to hire those involved.
How can the aviation industry, therefore, possibly working with the government, improve the process of employing international graduates and promote jobs here in the UK?
The industry continues to aim for pre-pandemic efficiency levels in its operations and relationships. It has made significant headway but still has considerable ground to make up, having essentially being shut down for the best part of two years.
We must not lose the momentum that Generation Aviation Week has created and need to look at how, as an industry, we make a difference to young people who want to make informed choices about their future.
From a practical perspective, something we could work on quickly is simple guidance on how the industry is structured. The CAA has already created a fantastic careers map and the industry needs to build on this good work by promoting it more widely.
As a result of the webinar, City University and others have offered to be part of a working group designed to improve understanding of jobs across the aviation industry, creating better guidance for students, and facilitating discussions on how to enhance engagement on what industry needs and how universities can help develop a workforce for the future.
It has been positive to see that both industry and education are keen to come together to not only promote careers in aviation, but also learn from one another to ensure the next generation of aviation professionals is ready to help boost the sector and meet sustainability targets.
Images: Talentview Aviation