A view of a propeller plane flying above a high school football field.

A view of a propeller plane flying above a high school football field. | Photo via Hechinger Report

Shop class is grounded, high school aviation classes are taking flight

With the aviation industry facing worker shortages, K-12 schools try to offer a runway into jobs in the field

There has been a growing understanding that our education system hasn’t done enough to provide students the skills they need for the workforce. The pandemic worsened the situation: Almost every industry faced a shortage of qualified workers. Now, some high schools around the country are tackling the issue head-on by blurring the lines between education and workforce systems and establishing training programs designed to create a pathway into well-paying jobs.

Two new initiatives launched by school districts in and around Pittsburgh, which aim to create viable pathways for students into the aviation and aeronautics industry, offer examples.

“For too long, our education and systems of employment, of workforce, have been too misaligned,” said Joel Vargas, vice president of education practice at Jobs for the Future. He said similar programs focusing on aviation pathways, some in partnership with local colleges and universities, have been launched in several states, such as Colorado, California and Alabama.

After a slew of retirements, the aviation industry faces worker shortages in virtually every specialty — from airline pilots and drone pilots to mechanics and aeronautical engineers. By 2026, the industry will need to add an estimated 24,000 airline pilots and by 2027 it might be short as many as 40,000 mechanics. The market for drone pilots  is expected to grow by 51.1 percent over the next four years.

“Our school community has a lot of socioeconomic challenges and one of the things that we were interested in is showing our students that there is a pathway to get some of these high-paying aviation-type jobs,” said Tim Rishel, a math teacher at South Allegheny School District in Pennsylvania.

This fall, he’ll be teaching a new four-year aviation careers program at South Allegheny High School to introduce students to these jobs. The program will be a full-period elective class that will teach students the technical aspects of how aviation equipment is built and works and expose them to jobs in the field.

The class is being launched with the help of education nonprofit Remake Learning. In 2021, the organization started a “moonshot grants” fund for school districts in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia in an effort to help expand or create programs to improve schools and communities. Rishel said the grant helped the district invest in flight simulators and equipment for its course, to provide students with the hands-on experience they need.