Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
A Shrinking Pool

It’s official. It must be, because the Globe and Mail says so.


March 8, 2011
By Paul Dixon

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It’s official. It must be, because the Globe and Mail says so. Alongside the obligatory story of 2011 New Year’s babies ran a de facto obituary for the Baby Boom as the first wave of boomers, born in 1946, will be hitting that magic number 65 at some point this year. Like the sound barrier once was to high fliers before us, turning 65 is not quite as intimidating now that we find ourselves approaching it and passing on through it.

Sixty-five isn’t what it used to be, as many boomers bailed out of the workforce well in advance (in the spirit of full disclosure, I confess to being one who leapt at the first opportunity). This has softened the impact on the workforce as the largest cohort is about to leave. Look at the situation in many Canadian police forces and fire departments. Police and fire personnel in most cases are able to take a full pension at an earlier age, as a reflection of the work environment. Over the past decade, retirements ballooned in departments across the country, with the result that average age and years of service have dropped significantly. The generation coming in may be better educated than the one it replaces, but the former lack the practical experience that only comes from doing the job. This situation has created a vacuum, if you will.

The Canadian Forces faces a similar situation. In the words of Maj.-Gen. Yvon Blondin, commanding officer of 1 Canadian Air Division, “I have a lot people with lots of experience and a lot of people with no experience and nothing in between.” It’s not a shortage of pilots that threatens to ground the air force, but a shortage of skilled aircrew and maintenance personnel. Recent groundings of CF helicopters were not the result of safety concerns or pilot shortages, but rather of a lack of qualified flight mechanics. The ground crew for the 2010 Snowbirds included a private (lowest rank in the CF) for the first time in most people’s memory: testimony to how shallow the pool is. For the military, at least, the irony is that attracting and retaining pilots is the least of its worries. The downturn in the world’s airlines has played a large part in that.

The situation is only going to get worse, as evidenced by the numbers of students enrolled in public schools across Canada. The clue to the future can be found in the huge disparity between the numbers of students projected to graduate from high school this year and the number of students entering Grade 1. Across the country, the number of students entering the school system has dropped drastically, to as much as 25 per cent below the number of students completing Grade 12 in the same school district. There are a few areas where enrolment numbers are up, but they are very much in the minority.

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The pending approval of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline and other mega projects in northern Canada will place an increased demand on aviation resources.

The need for personnel at all levels is expanding at the same time as the pool of available talent is shrinking. While elementary school enrolments are headed downwards, post-secondary institutions – universities, colleges and technical institutes – have been expanding across the country, both in terms of the number of institutions and the number of students enrolling. Jack Baryluk of BCIT’s aerospace program says that no one graduating from its programs has difficulty finding a job, and often they have the luxury of choosing from several offers. In several instances, an entire class has been recruited by a single organization.

In a Feb. 16 address to the Vancouver Board of Trade where he discussed the importance of the aerospace industry to the country in general and the metro Vancouver region in particular, David Schellenberg, CEO of Cascade Aerospace and Vice-Chair of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada said that his company could use 100 people. New hires. Right now. In an industry that employs more than 80,000 people nationwide, how many unfilled positions are there today, let alone ten years from now?

If the job market is getting this tight today, what’s it going to look like a few years from now, when those Grade 1 students of today are graduating from high school? As the boomers slide down the other side of the bell curve, what comes with the demographic dips in the years ahead? What will the impact be on commercial aviation in general? More specifically, what will the impact be on the smaller operations? Is this the start of a trend that will see the larger operator consolidate its positions and the small operator follow the family farm into the pages of the history books?

Who will be the hewers of wood and carriers of water for future generations?


Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.


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