Opinion: Some kids need a little lift to see aviation as a career path (Seattle Times)

Originally published in the Seattle Times on May 1, 2019

By Brad Tilden, Alaska Airlines CEO

In aviation and in other realms, “lift” is the force that lifts airplanes into the sky, pulls sailboats forward, and makes propellers on windmills work. In 1738, a guy named Daniel Bernoulli figured this out.  Specifically, he figured out that as the velocity of a fluid (air or water in these cases) increases, pressure decreases.  So engineers went to work.  With airplanes, they built curves into the wings to force air above the wing to travel farther, and therefore faster, than air below the wings.  This simple idea creates high pressure air below the wing, and low pressure air above the wing, and it is what keeps airplanes aloft.  Magic!

As our region grows faster than the Seattle skyline, adding jobs and opportunities, we have a moral imperative to figure out our own version of Bernoulli’s principle, something we should have figured out a long time ago. The question is how do we lift kids from all backgrounds and circumstances into the futures that they deserve.

Over the next five years, 740,000 jobs will be added in Washington State. The majority of these will be in highly skilled positions. We’ll need teachers, nurses, technicians, builders, aviators, and more. Some 70% of these jobs will require some training or education beyond high school, but only 31% of our kids are achieving this higher level of learning today. If we don’t fix the imbalance, we’ll most likely import the talent, which means our own kids, especially those kids from more economically challenged backgrounds, will miss out on the opportunities that they so clearly deserve.

As an industry, aviation offers a diverse array of jobs, and a chance to move between them throughout a career. Our state has the largest concentration of aviation and aerospace activity of any in the nation, and Boeing estimates our industry will need 206,000 new pilots and 189,000 new maintenance technicians over the next two decades. To fill these jobs, Alaska Airlines is working with local schools and colleges to make sure we fill these key positions.

In the meantime, one thing that all of us should do is expose our young people to potential career options.  We can do this by partnering with local school districts, by mentoring and creating programs that enable kids to find their voice and believe in their strengths, by providing internships for young people to explore work pathways, and by hiring, training, and promoting a diverse workforce.  If kids can see the destination, it will help them find a way to get there.

This Saturday, Alaska Airlines employees will lead our 11th Annual Aviation Day, and we expect more than 1,200 students to visit our hangar – more than ten times the number who came more than a decade ago. Young people, largely teens, will explore aircraft designs with engineers, kick the tires of an F-18 fighter (and a 737!), and test their skills on our flight simulators.

Many who’ve attended Aviation Day have gone on to careers within the industry.  People like Brendan Cray, an aircraft technician for Alaska who credits Aviation Day for steering him toward a career in aviation.

Like an airplane taking off, an event of this size is a team effort. As the real experts, our employees create and lead Aviation Day. But we couldn’t do this without great partners – the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, U.S. Air Force and Reserves, Sea-Tac Airport, local community colleges and flight schools. Together, we ensure kids can have new experiences, ask questions, and connect with resources for their futures.

Middle school students in Highline are some of those who inspire us. A few years ago, when we asked them about their dreams for the future, many told us they didn’t think they’d be qualified for jobs in aviation – despite growing up with aviation all around them. Some didn’t even know these jobs existed.

Our goal at Aviation Day, and beyond, is to ensure that every kid believes they can work in aviation – or another great career option. But this is a path – not a single step. We recognize that year-round efforts are needed across many fronts:

  • Our partners at Highline Schools, Museum of Flight, and Pacific Science Center fuel possibility and creativity throughout the year.
  • Scholarships at Port Jobs enable airport employees to finish their education or pursue training for career advancement.
  • Our Rotor Wing and Camo2Commerce programs support vets to leverage their valuable skills from the military as commercial pilots and maintenance technicians.
  • We pledged with Sisters of the Skies to significantly increase the number of female African-American pilots by 2025 – to hire the best pilots and ensure a pipeline of talent full of young people who can see themselves anywhere.
  • We’re inspired by Starbucks’ commitment to opportunity youth, Boeing’s Core Plus curriculum development, Vigor’s community workforce training programs, and many other local companies.

Bernoulli’s principle of lift took our world to places our ancestors would never have imagined. Let’s enable kids, including those furthest from opportunity, to reach new ones, too.