When I was in high school, I – like many American kids – was pushed to pursue a four-year college degree. But I decided to go another way. I had joined a robotics club in school, which taught me something important about myself: I’m a hands-on learner. I love building things, taking them apart, learning how they work, and figuring out how to make them work even better. Once I started exploring robotics, I realized that I just wasn’t the kind of person who would be happy to sit in a cubicle and do the same job day in and day out for the rest. of his life. I knew I had to do something different.
Instead of going to a traditional college, I enrolled at the Myrtle Beach, SC campus of PIA—School for Aviation Maintenance, where I earned my Airframe & Powerplant license. With an A&P license, I can work as a mechanic in aviation, aerospace, power generation, etc. The wide variety of career paths I could follow with my A&P license is why people sometimes call it “a license to learn.” I was thrilled to get my license in just 16 months, start my career and continue to learn on the job.
I was also thrilled to be able to start my career debt-free. According to 2022 student loan debt data, the United States has an estimated total of $1.7 trillion in student loans owed by more than 40 million people. That means one in eight Americans has student debt, averaging more than $57,000 per household. This was not how I wanted to launch my financial future.
By comparison, my PIA tuition, including the cost of materials, was about $16,000 after grants and scholarships. I paid for it with the help of $9,000 in student loans, which I’ve already paid off in full. But if I had gone to a university in the state for four years to get a bachelor’s degree, I would have paid almost $10,000 a year, or $40,000 in total – and that total wouldn’t have included the cost additional room and board or other expenses. If I had gone to a university out of state, my tuition would have been even higher.
Instead, I was able to complete my education in less than two years, with much less debt, and start earning a good salary in an industry I’m thrilled to be part of.
The feeling is mutual. Due to a drastic shortage of new mechanics entering the aviation industry, AMTs and avionics technicians are among the most in-demand jobs in the United States.
How serious is this shortage? Even though the number of new AMTs is expected to increase by 13% over the next 20 years, there will still be approximately 12,000 mechanics below the minimum number needed to meet the operational needs of the commercial aviation industry by 2041.
Therefore, aviation employers are very excited to see new talent eager to join the field. This was evidenced in my own job “hunting” experience: despite several job offers after graduating from PIA, I had already lined up my current job before I even graduatedso I ended up declining all the other offers I received.
While people might be surprised to learn that a trade school graduate could get too job postings, the truth is mine isn’t the only field where a lack of new entrants and a looming wave of retirements is making it easier than ever to find a well-paying job without a four-year degree .
Despite this, only 30% of high school students say they have considered attending vocational or trade schools. This is often due to a lack of awareness; vo-tech programs are rarely seen as viable and respectable alternatives to traditional college expectations.
I sincerely believe that more young people would choose to attend trade school over a typical “four-year college-to-career” path if that option was brought up more often in high school. Although they have a strong focus on STEM education, schools don’t always explain the different ways students who love science, engineering, and technology can make a living from it. They also don’t generally explain how student loans work, how difficult it can be to pay them back even if you get hired with a decent salary after college, and that you can also earn a decent salary and benefits in jobs that don’t. require a four-year degree.
I also believe that more young women would be inspired to enter fields like aircraft maintenance if they were better encouraged to explore mechanical careers. Currently, only 2.57% of AMTs identify as female. With such a shortage of labor in so many skilled trades, employers and educators should do all they can to make more young men and women aware of the value these rewarding career paths offer.
Luckily, my parents were extremely supportive of me going to trade school and pursuing a career in a typically male-dominated field because they saw how well I did with non-traditional apprenticeship programs. Admittedly, when I first presented the idea to my parents, my father was a little hesitant because we did not yet have all the information necessary to make a clear decision. But before I graduated from high school, we went to the PIA open house as a family, and all of our questions were answered. From then on, we all knew this was the right path for me.
I can only hope that more students will have similar discussions with their parents and receive the same enthusiastic support.
Marissa Estebanez is a January 2021 graduate of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics Myrtle Beach Campus and currently works as an Aircraft Maintenance Technician with South Carolina Avionics Services. This fall, she will be honored as one of the 2022 “40 Under 40” Maintenance Professionals in Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine’s annual AMT Awards.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.