Are There Enough Young Air Traffic Controllers to Replace Retiring Baby Boomers?

Published on Oct 15, 2015

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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Overworked air traffic controllers are falling asleep on the job because there simply aren’t enough of them to allow for reasonable shifts, says an article by CNN Money. The article also indicates that this shortage may get worse as a huge portion of the workforce approaches retirement.

So what does the future hold for the air traffic controller occupation? Are there enough young people entering this occupation to replace retiring baby boomers? What does it take to be an air traffic controller? Is this a promising career path? EMSI decided to answer these questions with Analyst, our labor market and education data software.

Yes, the Air Traffic Controller Workforce is Aging

In the United States, an alarming 49% of the air traffic controller workforce is age 45 or older, and roughly 20% of the workforce is 55 or older. This age breakdown may create significant recruitment challenges in the future as baby boomers retire.

But Would It Really Be Difficult to Get Young People Interested?

On paper, the air traffic controller occupation seems to be a career path that may appeal to many young people, especially folks who are interested in middle-skill opportunities. Here’s why:

  • Median hourly earnings for air traffic controllers are $58.82 per hour—nearly triple the national average of $20.66 per hour for all occupations.

  • Education requirements are fairly low. Roughly 60% of all air traffic controllers have less than a bachelor’s degree—so it wouldn’t cost much to become an air traffic controller, and it wouldn’t take very much time.

  • Millennials are widely known for placing high value on a sense of purpose at work, and there’s certainly something purposeful about directing air traffic and getting planes to land safely—even if it comes with long hours and a lot of stress.

So Are Enough People Training to Be Air Traffic Controllers?

The good news is that air traffic controller completions (CIP 49.0105) have been increasing overall. Although, there have been occasional declines, such as a slight dip in 2013 and a more significant dip in 2014. Still, from 2003 to 2013, completions grew 151%—a significant increase even though completion counts are still hovering around 1,000 per year (see chart).

Air Traffic Controller Completions in the United States

But, in 2013, there were fewer completions (1,183 nationally) than openings (1,412 nationally), suggesting that there is still a need for skilled workers in this field. (Note that job openings are conservative estimates, using a rate of replacement per occupation developed by the BLS. To read more about how openings are calculated, check out EMSI’s Knowledge Base article.)

And just because students completed a program does not necessarily mean that they earned a passing score on the air traffic standardized aptitude test (AT-SAT). A low score may deter students from becoming air traffic controllers—further diminishing the pipeline of potential workers that could replace retiring employees.

For more on EMSI data—available at the county, MSA, and ZIP code level—or to see data for your region, contact us. Follow EMSI on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn and Facebook.