With pilot shortage on radar, more aviation students landing in Mankato

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The demand for pilots is growing – and so is the number of aviation students heading to MSU Mankato.

The Minnesota State University program is the state's only four-year bachelor's degree program in aviation. MPR News reports the enrollment of 176 students is a jump of 60 percent compared to four years ago.

It's quite a reversal for a program that was nearly shut down five years ago. St. Cloud State stopped offering aviation degrees in 2010 and the coordinator of Mankato's program tells MPR they were on the chopping block, too, but were saved by a surge of community support.

MSU's profile within the industry also seems to be taking off.

The university announced at the start of this month that its aviation program has been accredited by the Aviation Accreditation Board International, a distinction held by fewer than 40 schools in the country, according to the Board's website.

Why a pilot shortage?

A wave of retirements is one reason the demand for pilots is growing. 65 is a mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots and lots of baby boomers are near that age. MPR says the Air Line Pilots Association expects 21,000 U.S. retirements in the next 10 years.

Stricter requirements for becoming a pilot are another factor. The Motley Fool notes that a federal change a few years ago upped the flight time needed to become a copilot from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. USA Today says regional airlines have been urging Congress to roll back the requirement.

Pilots, however, say low starting pay is what's really behind the shortage.

MPR reports a four-year degree aviation degree at MSU Mankato costs the student $146,000.

Mark Biolo, who flies for Hawthorne Aviation in Eau Claire, told WEAU this week that first officers start with annual salaries of $25,000 to $35,000, adding "...for someone to incur $100,000 worth of debt and go to work for almost nothing and have to service that debt while at the same time trying to live, it’s not an appealing career for people now."

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The U.S. is not alone in facing the prospect of empty cockpits. CNN reports there's an acute shortage in Asia, as well.

A Japanese university has tried to alleviate it through a partnership with the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, the Grand Forks Herald reports.

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