Spotlight: Degree Vs. pilot training

Everyone’s skills need testing, but not everyone needs to acquire those skills at university – and not everyone needs to go to university before they start working’ – Financial Times, November 2015

It’s a question that’s asked often by many visitors to Pilot Careers Live: Do I go straight into a form of pilot training after school or college, or do I go to university and get a degree first?

Jonathan Candelon from FTA explains to Pilot Career News, “We believe that commercial pilot training offers a viable, alternative form of academic and vocational study and a valid career option, when compared with the more traditional route of college and a university degree. At events like Pilot Careers Live, we meet many aspiring pilots and parents, considering pilot training but often, parents are looking for the ‘security’ of a traditional degree when thinking about their son or daughter’s career path.”

Although many pilots working today don’t have a degree, the pilot role is one that is highly skilled, well-paid and rewarding in terms of career options. Becoming a pilot is now an accessible and attainable profession for many. In its yearly survey on the best paid jobs in Britain by the Office for National Statistics, the Aircraft Pilot role came out top, with an average earning of £1,800 per week. Although many airline pilots would say they don’t do the job for the money, the comfort of knowing you can earn a relatively high salary, in comparison to other jobs, can offset the worry of high training costs.

What’s the real cost?

While there’s the mythologised figure of £100,000 that’s often bandied about as the cost of pilot training, FTA, for one, is keen to share with 16-18 year olds that an integrated flight deck programme is an accessible option for them and that pilot training doesn’t have to cost more than a standard university degree. In terms of gaining a well-rounded qualification, pilot training can be compared to a standard UK four-year degree course, which will tend to include thorough academic knowledge and extensive vocational grounding and/or experience. Recent reports in the press now cite the cost of a degree (including living costs) at £84,224 for a four year degree course, albeit much of these costs are available in student loans. But in comparison, there are programmes, such as FTA’s new Economy Integrated Flight Deck Programme, priced at £78,034 (also including living costs), which mean it’s possible to qualify in approximately 16 months and start earning a salary; far earlier than those taking a traditional degree.

“There’s a well-documented growing demand for pilots and their skills in the future”

With regard to pilot job prospects, there’s a well-documented growing demand for pilots. A recent survey by AeroProfessional, stated that over 50% of airlines surveyed believe that there’s a pilot skills shortage and ‘558,000 pilots will be needed over the next 20 years’ according to Boeing.

Pilot training is highly vocational when compared with a traditional degree; the course prepares students for the job that they will actually do, in contrast to many traditional degrees, in which students may not even use in a practical way when it comes to taking a job. A BBC News article in August 2015 concluded that ‘58.5% of graduates are in a job that doesn’t actually require a degree.’ It’s not always easy to find a role straight from university and those that do, will not necessarily use the degree that they studied for over three or four years, at a cost of over £60,000.

The Times Higher Education Supplement goes further, believing ‘the number of 18 year old home applicants is likely to decline in coming years’. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said the number of graduates has now ‘significantly outstripped’ the creation of highly-skilled jobs but by contrast, in the aviation sector there is a recognised shortage of high skilled pilots.

By taking a commercial pilot training course, many students have the ability to start earning as soon as they qualify, within 16-18 months of starting their course, at which point they can start to repay any loans taken to fund the cost of training. As it stands, 91% (and climbing) of FTA cadets from last year are already in jobs and former students have found roles with over 30 airlines.

“Pilot training can be less costly than studying for a ‘traditional’ four year degree”

What research shows is that pilot training can be less costly than studying for a ‘traditional’ four year degree (depending on the flight training school that a student chooses to train with and their course pricing). According to recent National Union of Students data, the average annual cost of living for students in England is £12,056. Based on this sum, a four year degree course will cost a student £48,224 (4 x £12,056) plus £36,000 in fees (4 x £9,000). So the total cost of a four year traditional degree course would be £84,224.

If we use the same £12,056 living allowance for pilot cadets across one and a half years, the living cost is £18,084. And if cadets choose the new Economy Integrated Flight Deck Programme at FTA, the course cost £59,995, making a total cost of £78,034 including living costs. Therefore, in real terms, becoming a pilot can be almost as affordable as studying for a three-year degree and certainly cheaper than a four year course (depending on the flight school, of course). The real difference being that within 18 months, pilots can join the job market, start their dream career and begin earning.

So perhaps it’s time to debunk the myth of the £100,000 plus pilot training course in favour of more affordable courses that do not sacrifice quality of training. And perhaps it’s time to consider the job prospects and return on investment of pilot training versus the actual cost of taking a traditional degree – with no guarantee of a job at the end of it and the distinct possibility that students will not even use the degree that they have taken.