What can airlines teach us about teacher shortages?

Aviation and education are facing similar hiring challenges—and the strategies airlines are employing could help school leaders recruit teachers.

By Abigale Franco Last Updated: January 31, 2023

Recently, one of our SchoolCEO writers attended a conference in Napa, California. Instead of making the 29-hour drive from Little Rock, she opted to fly. Her flight to the conference was relatively uneventful—a success story for traveling these days—but there was a hiccup on her way home. The flight was delayed, not for extreme weather conditions or mechanical issues, but because the plane lacked a pilot.

Her experience got us thinking about the similarities between the labor shortage in the airline industry and the teacher shortages currently facing education. At a glance, airlines and schools couldn’t seem more different. But beneath the surface, these industries share a variety of conditions that have had similar effects on their customers and employees.

To start, the most sought-after employees in both industries require specific certifications and licenses that take years—and in most cases, tens of thousands of dollars—to earn. The result? Highly constrained labor pools. Aviation and education are also highly visible customer service industries, frequently subject to public inquiry and inspection. Even the tiniest indiscretion has the potential to generate a disastrous public response.

In addition, schools and airlines both had to pivot wildly during the pandemic, causing unprecedented criticism, mistrust, and confusion. And as the COVID situation evolved, employees in both industries were forced to publicly combat misinformation and defend ever-changing protocols, all while navigating the personal effects of a global crisis.

Of course, Delta and American have very different bottom lines than your schools do. It makes sense that they have very different solutions to the challenges you share. That’s why we’re exploring some approaches that airlines have taken recently to address this enduring labor shortage, and how your schools might apply these strategies.

Airline labor shortages reflect the teacher shortage.

District leaders have been feeling the heat of teacher shortages for quite a while longer than airline execs. Ask any seasoned educator—the labor crisis schools are facing today has roots in the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The pandemic may have exacerbated pre-existing challenges around hiring teachers, but it didn’t cause them.

But while teacher shortages slow-burned their way across the country over the past decade, the airline staffing shortage materialized almost overnight. As travel bans and social distancing protocols rolled out during the early days of the pandemic, “airlines urged many senior pilots, flight attendants and other employees to take buyouts or early retirements,” says Joann Muller from Axios. Airlines for America reports that between February 2020 and November 2020, the U.S. aviation industry lost more than 20% of its workforce—almost 94,000 employees.

Originally, experts anticipated travel to rebound gradually in the years following the pandemic. Instead, just as students—for the most part—returned to classrooms, stir-crazy passengers returned to the skies, sparking concern, confusion, and even outrage over mass vacancies.

Despite the differences in how they emerged, shortages are now wreaking havoc across both industries. If you ask us, teacher shortages are arguably more nuanced than the airlines’. To start, schools have less discretion over salaries, qualifications, and “product” than airlines do. But as previously mentioned, experts in these fields are working to overcome similar challenges in a familiar climate. How can their solutions apply to your district?

Both industries have significant barriers to entry.

Both airline carriers and schools are struggling to fill vacancies, in part because the barriers to entering these fields are extraordinarily high. Each state requires educators to acquire a range of certifications, including a bachelor’s degree, before entering the classroom. And according to survey data collected by U.S. News, the average cost of in-state tuition is currently at an all-time high.

This is particularly troubling for the future health of public education, considering that nearly half of today’s teachers already owe over $58,000 in student loans, with one in seven owing at least $105,000. Even more, in 2021, the wage gap between teachers and comparable college graduates grew to an all-time high of 23.5%. In other words, teachers only make 76.5 cents for each dollar that college graduates in other industries earn.

Excluding the wage gap, airlines are in a similar predicament. In the past, most major airlines required a bachelor’s degree for pilots in addition to other certifications and licenses. And even in the case that an airline carrier drops its degree requirement, the combined cost of a private pilot license and commercial certification starts at $89,000.

In other words, the average employee enters either of these workforces saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Sure, these qualifications are important to ensuring that schools and airlines function safely and efficiently—but they’re also cost-prohibitive and can discourage potential candidates from even considering careers in either field.

In lieu of raising salaries or lowering requirements to fly, airlines are taking a different approach. Many major airline carriers—like American and Southwest—have launched their own pilot academies. In addition to aviation training, these academies are designed to completely prepare students for navigating the bureaucracies of their respective airline carriers efficiently.

Kelby Tansey, manager of recruitment marketing for Southwest Airlines, told us more about the company’s pilot training program. “Destination 225° offers four pathways that cater directly to the experiences and needs of each student,” she tells us. “Under each pathway, students are provided with the training, mentorship, and opportunities needed to fly for Southwest, regardless of previous flight experience, education, or career.” And even more, “because Southwest supports students through scholarships, financing, and paid flight opportunities before graduation from the program, Destination 225° is also producing a more diverse workforce,” she says.

Destination 225° isn’t passive in recruitment efforts, either. “Data suggests that students begin thinking about a pathway for their future career around fifth grade,” says Tansey. “That’s why Southwest has invested in various K-12 initiatives, which provide young students with exposure to aviation through STEM-centered activities. We already know that exposure strikes interest, so we’re playing the long game.”

Launching your own teacher academy may not be a realistic or feasible solution for your district, but establishing a career pipeline between nearby education programs and your district just might be.

Take, for example, Educators Rising, a community-based career and technical organization that matches middle and high school students with mentors in their schools, exposing them to the daily life of a teacher. By working with a local chapter, participating schools can even connect their recent graduates to financial and social resources for education-based programs on nearby college campuses. And just like Destination 225°, Educators Rising aims to serve underrepresented and disadvantaged students.

Illustration of man with small suitcase standing in airport terminal

Airlines can offer strategies for hiring teachers creatively.

Throughout 2020, droves of senior pilots, flight attendants, and teachers retired earlier than planned or shifted careers altogether. This is problematic for two reasons:

1. Many of these positions are desperately needed but still remain vacant.

2. The combined experience of employees in the workforce has declined significantly, indicating a loss of knowledge, expertise, and mentorship that new hires otherwise would have benefited from.

Even without the mass exodus of 2020, workforces for both industries are failing to replenish quickly enough to accommodate vacancies. In recent years, fewer and fewer young adults have been enrolling in aviation- or education-related programs. So, instead of relying on new talent, airlines are working creatively to recruit and rehire from the pool of retirees who took early retirement packages at the start of the pandemic.

Recruiters for airline carriers aren’t alone in this approach; school districts have also reported a range of challenges in rehiring or recruiting experienced talent. Because negotiating salaries and hours—like airlines do—is largely out of your control, you’ll have to think creatively about hiring teachers. But thankfully, there are plenty of other strategies you can implement to attract seasoned employees to your district.

One strategy for attracting experienced employees is to implement an individualized onboarding process based on experience—especially if you have teachers returning to your district. As you already know, onboarding sets the tone for a new faculty member’s experience with your schools, but not every employee shares the same circumstances. For example, a recent college graduate may need more help navigating your district than a former employee who has already been there, done that, and probably still has the T-shirt. This doesn’t mean that former employees shouldn’t go through onboarding when they return to your schools, but the process should appropriately and respectfully reflect their previous experience.

In the case of recruiting former employees, some airlines are considering returning individuals closer to their previous level of seniority in terms of treatment, benefits, and salary. Currently, “[airline employees] who took a buyout or early retirement during the pandemic would have to start at the bottom of the seniority list if they wanted to come back,” says Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for flight tracking platform FlightAware.

Similarly, in most states, when retired teachers return to the classroom, they’re facing “pull-push” incentives on their pensions. This means that in states like Arkansas, each additional year of service beyond a certain threshold actually reduces pension wealth, discouraging educators from staying at—or returning to—their districts.

Obviously, it’s beyond your discretion to negotiate pension policies, but advocating for change can make a positive impression on potential employees and can even have tangible outcomes beyond your schools. In fact, because of the attention this approach has gained, some states are already making changes. In January 2022, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a law allowing retirees of at least six months to return to the classroom to fill positions of “critical need.” The best part? Returning retirees can continue drawing their retirement benefits along with their new salaries.

Schools—like airlines—should work to manage expectations and set boundaries.

Due to the nature of their work, employees of both airlines and schools fill highly visible, public-facing positions, in which employees take on high levels of risk. Security and safety in both workplaces are taken seriously. But even with current measures in place, airline employees and school faculty are still more likely to experience physical, emotional, and mental distress on the clock than their similarly educated counterparts.

According to the American Psychological Association, 29% of teachers said that they were verbally threatened or harassed by parents during the first full pandemic school year. Unfortunately, flight attendants, pilots, and airport ground personnel are in the same position; staffing shortages in airports in recent years are associated with an increase in workspace hazards. In 2021 alone, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded more incidents of assault against flight attendants than they did in the previous 26 years combined. And due to heavier demand on their already short-staffed systems, airport ground staff are also finding their jobs increasingly hazardous. Overall, while their work environments couldn’t be any more different, labor forces in both schools and airlines have one big item in common: Their workplaces need to be safer.

We don’t need to tell you that this is easier said than done. But airlines have taken a new—and relatively cost-effective—approach to remedying this issue that might be within your means. In January 2021, the FAA launched their “Zero Tolerance Campaign”—not to be confused with zero tolerance discipline policies in schools—to protect employees from violent or abusive behaviors perpetrated by customers.

Before accepting this initiative, many carriers adhered to the reactive “customer is always right” model, in which the burden of resolution falls to the employee, rather than the customer, after something goes wrong. Of course, treating customers with respect and gratitude traditionally builds positive connotations with your brand. Unfortunately, this approach also permits customers to take advantage of unclear policies—or vulnerable staff—while simultaneously sending employees mixed signals on which solutions are appropriate or not.

Under this new proactive campaign, airlines are prompting fliers to take ownership of their experiences by managing their own expectations. And although the campaign isn’t inherently about punishment, consequences for unwanted behavior—such as yelling, pushing, or using threatening language against employees or other patrons—are clearly communicated to consumers. Customer experience is important, but employee security takes priority.

Fortunately, the campaign has worked. Now, about two years after the implementation of their Zero Tolerance Campaign, the FAA says the number of violations against airport ground and air staff has decreased by 80%.

Elements of this campaign may be a little too strong for your purposes, but establishing new boundaries between your schools, the families you serve, and your greater community could initiate a more empathetic understanding of your staff’s obligations and limits. Throughout the pandemic, staffing shortages exacerbated issues in schools; chaos, confusion, and disinformation were—and still are—par for the course.

Our solution? Proactive communication. If your families aren’t aware of your staff’s boundaries and the consequences of overstepping them, how can they manage their own expectations, behaviors, and interactions? Parents and families need to know what is and isn’t realistic to expect of their interactions with a district—and who better to lead the cause than you?

Establishing boundaries for communication with and expectations of your teachers may sound like an invitation for conflict—and honestly, you can almost certainly anticipate pushback of some sort. Your community may need some reassurance that consequences will be reasonable and proportionate. But during this process, you can instill trust in your educators, systems, and leadership.

Most importantly, incorporating an employee-first approach into your district’s employer brand has two potential benefits for your schools. First, this approach makes your district stand out as a great place to work for potential candidates; and second, establishing boundaries in general is great for all relationships. This conversation could even facilitate engagement with your district’s challenges and further humanize you and your staff. Allowing your faculty to establish boundaries around communication and expectations with parents—and helping enforce those boundaries—is a long-term investment in the greater well-being of your school culture and livelihood.

Despite the challenges they’re facing today, experts anticipate that airlines will flourish in the years to come as they incorporate these creative solutions into their practices—and your schools can do the same. Making your careers more accessible to the right candidates, establishing a pipeline to careers within your schools, and cultivating an appropriate sense of involvement between your district and families may help ease tensions over vacancies. Labor shortages can be a turbulent ride for everyone, but with some new strategies and perspectives under your belt, you don’t have to wing it on your own.

Originally published as "From Turbulence to Clear Skies" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!

SchoolCEO logo