The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 700 bomber escort missions during World War II. They were the first group of African-American aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force, as well as the only fighter group in the entire war to have a perfect record protecting bombers. But when they returned home, many couldn’t get a job in the airline industry.
You can hear the amazement in Randall Rochon’s voice when he relayed this story during a recent interview with TriplePundit. But what Rochon, a first officer for United Airlines, says next is even more surprising: Today, nearly 80 years after the end of WWII, African-Americans make up less than 3 percent of all airline pilots. For African-American women, the figure barely reaches 1 percent.
The issue of minority underrepresentation in the airline industry “is still very relevant,” Rochon told us. “We have to ensure that minorities—especially those in vulnerable communities who have maybe never even been on an airplane—understand they can have a career in aerospace. We have to give them a pathway.”
Major airlines increasingly agree with Rochon’s sentiment. JetBlue and the JetBlue Foundation, for example, say they’re leading the charge to build a more diverse talent pipeline for the aviation industry, in partnership with groups like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).
Founded in 1976, OBAP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of minorities in aviation and aerospace careers. With more than 3,000 members internationally, representing every major and regional airline carrier, OBAP supports aspiring aviation professionals through mentoring, scholarships, training and youth-focused education programs.
Rochon himself got his start through the organization. “I was sitting in my kitchen the year before college and was flipping through some of my mother’s magazines when I came across an ad in Ebony about OBAP,” he recalled. “I didn’t know much about them, so I gave them a call to see what they were about. I left a voicemail and really didn’t think I would hear back.”
But he did. The next day, the OBAP president gave him a call, and a few weeks later, Rochon found himself thousands of miles away at Western Michigan University in a two-week summer flight program for high-school students. Soon after the program ended, the university offered him a full scholarship to its College of Aviation.
Since then, Rochon has been an active OBAP member, today serving as the vice chair of its board of directors. “OBAP offered me opportunities to meet and network with professionals in the industry, it opened up possibilities, and it led to many friendships,” he told us.
The two-week program that Rochon joined in the summer before college was one of OBAP’s early Aerospace Career Education (ACE) Academies.
Endorsed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ACE Academies aim to introduce, educate and guide middle- and high-school students toward careers in aviation. The first academy in 1992 hosted 41 students. Today, more than 1,000 students participate every summer at one of more than 26 locations across the U.S., including academies in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In total, more than 30,000 students have gone through the ACE program, learning about the history of aviation, fundamentals of aerodynamics, air traffic control procedures and aerospace technologies.
But it is corporate partnerships that bring the academies to life and make them more than academic experiences.
Case in point: Students participating in the New York academy this summer got a behind-the-scenes tour of JetBlue’s terminal and maintenance hangar at John F. Kennedy airport. They also had a chance to experience and fly in the airline’s E-190 simulators, visit the control tower, and receive hands-on flight training with a certified FAA flight instructor.
The JetBlue Foundation and OBAP hosted seven ACE Academy programs last summer in Boston; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Los Angeles and Long Beach; New York; Orlando; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many previous ACE alumni have gone on to land coveted internships with JetBlue and other corporate partners, some of which led to full-time careers.
“JetBlue brings more than financial support to OBAP,” Rochon said. “They bring promise and hope and opportunity. Kids who go through these programs and meet with professionals go back home and talk to mom and dad, saying ‘Hey, I know what I want to do with my life.”
There is another reason—closer to home—that investing in organizations such as OBAP is essential for JetBlue and other airlines: the industry is facing a severe shortage of pilots.
According to the FAA, there were about 827,000 pilots in U.S. in 1987. But during the past three decades, the number of has decreased by 30 percent while demand for air travel has skyrocketed. In fact, the International Air Transport Association predicts that air travel will double over the next 20 years.
What’s more, a 2016 report by Boeing shows that 42 percent of the pilots currently flying for major U.S. airlines will reach their mandatory retirement age of 65 within the next 10 years.
JetBlue and its company sponsored Foundation is prepared, stating on its website: “We know that the industry can’t rely on the traditional ‘talent pipelines’ to fill our future positions; we need to be innovative to fire up passion for aviation among the next generation.”
Whatever the reason, for Rochon, the importance of the partnership is simple. “It’s to say to kids, ‘You can do it … [a career in aviation] can be done.’”
This article series is sponsored by JetBlue and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.