An inside look at Forbes Magazine No. 1 Trade School: Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics
November 19, 2018
Interview with PIA President CEO Suzanne Markel
Congratulations on landing the Number One spot in Forbes’s “Top Trade School” List! What is the energy level at the school — and with your students — after receiving this honor?
The PIA community has been so proud and excited to be recognized in this way. Our faculty and staff work so hard toward our students’ academic and career success, and this ranking gives us the opportunity to communicate to a much larger audience about the opportunities that come along with a PIA education.
You admitted that when you first heard of PIA you thought it was a school for pilots — which it is not — but it is filling a skills gap out there. What is the training your students get and what is/are the industry need(s) they are filling?
Our education focuses on Aviation Maintenance and Aviation Electronics, which is also known as Avionics. Maintenance students learn to repair, maintain and overhaul all aspects of an aircraft — from the landing gear to the engines. Avionics students have a curriculum geared towards the complicated electronics systems that allow a plane to operate safely, leading to advanced component-level troubleshooting skills. The programs give the students the hands-on education to not only earn the needed certifications to repair aircraft, but to have a competitive edge in their careers. The skills PIA students come away with allow them to be an asset to a wide range of employers looking for a skilled tradesperson. Our students are educated in the realm of aviation; however, their skill set is transferable to several industries.
Our industry partnerships allow us to hear of the critical need that exists in aviation — and the literature has supported it for years. Aviation Maintenance Technician Magazine’s Reader’s Survey in 2014 indicated that 76.6 percent of Aviation Technicians were currently over the age of 50, so retirements are now actively occurring faster than schools are graduating new technicians, and the labor shortfall is projected to continue for the next several years. Without aviation technicians, planes simply will not leave the gate, and the aviation companies are working hard to address the current and impending shortages.
What are the job opportunities your students are getting upon graduation, and how does the aviation industry foresee growth in the future?
We see students accepting positions at regional airlines, MROs and major manufacturing companies. It’s not uncommon for students to have secured their positions prior to graduation. The demand for PIA graduates to fill these positions, and the rate at which they move from entry-level to mid-level positions, is really telling of the industry need right now. The Boeing 2018 Technican Outlook publication projects that there will be 189,000 jobs in North America available for aviation technicians between now and 2037. That is a 60 percent increase from their outlook last year. As technology and the industry grow at an ever-expanding rate, more demand is created.
You said in the Forbes article that “Higher ed hasn’t thought about what the endgame is for students.” Can you expand on that comment, and offer suggestions on what they can do to help students who might not want to pursue a traditional four-year degree?
I want to make clear that I respect higher education as an industry and community asset, and there are several excellent colleges and universities in Pennsylvania that do much for their students and for the greater good. The larger context for my statement has to do with how colleges and universities have historically thought about the goals of higher education, particularly liberal arts education. The college campus environment itself attracts many students who don’t have a clear career goal, and thus they sometimes commence a very expensive, academically challenging on-campus experience without a defined path.
Many colleges and universities are now having to deal with increased pressure from students and families regarding career prospects, considering many graduates’ difficulties in securing meaningful employment and paying back school loans. This pressure is leading to a shift in the goals of colleges to more realistically prioritize entry level career prospects, in addition to the attainment of knowledge. PIA, and other reputable technical schools have always, by design and by necessity, been focused on career prospects for graduates, and all activities in the academic and laboratory environment are driven toward the goal of gainful employment.
A traditional four-year degree is excellent for some students, but a very poor fit for others, so the conversation about aptitudes, interests and goals needs to begin early in high school. Guidance counselors and parents need to feel confident that there are other, excellent options for students which do not necessarily require a four-year degree. I would suggest that high school students visit various types of postsecondary schools and make their selection by what they feel passionate about and what they can make a living at, not what others might think of it.
You have been with PIA for 19 years. What do you attribute your success to?
I have always had a willingness to learn and grow from my experiences, and I tend to think of problems as opportunities to improve processes and communication. I recognize the amazing amount of talent we have here at PIA in our faculty and departmental staff, and my goal is to facilitate their success and the success of our students. I believe that my achievements at PIA have largely been a side effect of that philosophy.
Read the full Forbes article on the PIA at https://www.forbes.com/sites/cartercoudriet/2018/08/15/the-tiny-trade-school-ivy-outperforming-top-four-year-colleges/