Joining the Jet Set

 

Job opportunities with Delta and Sun Country can be lined up before graduation for aviation students at Minnesota State Mankato.

Student pilots at Minnesota State University, Mankato are getting a first-class upgrade in job opportunities, thanks to Delta and Sun Country airlines.

Recent partnerships struck with Minnesota State Mankato’s aviation program and the two airlines allow interested students to sign on with the airlines while in college. This not only gives students a path to job security following graduation, it gives the program an even stronger reputation—one that’s showing itself in enhanced enrollment and faculty.

Aviation professor Tom Peterson said the number of students interested in becoming pilots has hit a new high, a situation likely to continue. This comes at a time when the industry is in the midst of a pilot shortage, he said, the result of mandatory retirement at one end and at the other a lack of interest in piloting as a career—until recently.

“When I first got here 10 years ago, there were maybe 45 in the whole program,” Peterson said. “We’d get 30 or 40 interested students a year—maybe. Now we have 310 students, and there’s around 250 that have applied for next year.

“The word on pilot shortage is getting out there,” he said. “Airlines pay pretty well if you get there, but you have to get there.”

That makes the recent partnerships with Delta and Sun Country all the more attractive.

Sun Country’s Bridge Program gives aviation students an opportunity to sign with the national airline while in school. Once they obtain the required number of flight hours and other requirements, the job opportunity awaits.

“It is a conditional job offer as soon as they graduate and have those hours available,” said Sun Country spokeswoman Jessica Winter.

Delta’s Propel Pilot Career Path similarly provides a path for juniors, seniors and recent graduates to land a job with Delta.

“When a student successfully applies for the program and makes it through Delta’s own testing and interview process on campus, they’ll receive a qualified job offer with Delta Air Lines,” said Catherine Plasschaert, a captain with Delta and a 1991 Minnesota State Mankato graduate. Plasschaert also mentors student pilots as a liaison for the Propel program.

“It is amazing, at age 19 or 20, knowing that you have a future job flying with Delta Air Lines,” she said.

 

The alignment with the two airlines bolsters the aviation program’s already solid reputation.

“What I like about the Sun Country and Delta deal is it validates what we do here,” Peterson added. “We like to say we have a good program, but when they came in and said we think you have a good program because we want to partner with you guys …. I mean, you can’t do better than that.”

In the past, graduating students would usually work for one of the regional airlines that recruit on campus, such as Endeavor and Republic. Such regional lines served as “Delta feeders,” Peterson said, though getting interviews with the airline was far from guaranteed. Now it is.

Seven years ago, Peterson said, Delta expressed interest in working with the University.

“They came in and said, ‘We’d like to work with you, but you’re not accredited, there’s no jet simulator, no transition programs—you don’t have things in place we want to see.’ They left and we’re sitting there going: Now what do we do?”

Things accelerated for the program over the next seven years, he said. The program received accreditation, installed a jet simulator and added transition courses. “And we also have, with the Delta feeders, a really, really solid reputation for putting out good students.”

The ongoing relationship with Delta was nurtured to the point where Minnesota State Mankato was among the eight initial schools Delta selected and named in fall of 2018 to be part of the Propel program.

 “This relationship between Delta Air Lines and Minnesota State Mankato benefits the students and the industry as a whole,” Plasschaert said.

Sun Country’s Wheeler said that while the airline has long had alumni from the University fly Sun Country planes, this is the first formal agreement to provide conditional job offers while in school.

And the program comes at a time when the airline is gearing up to expand its operation significantly across the board—including pilots, attendants, mechanics and others, she said.

“We’d like to double the size of the airline in the next three to five years” she explains. “Doubling the capacity obviously means … substantially increasing the number of pilots we have.”

“In my 33 years of flying,” Plasschaert said, “I have never seen such a huge wave of pilot hiring like it is now. Over the next decade, around half of Delta’s current pilot workforce will reach the age of mandatory retirement. We expect to hire 8,000 pilots during that time.”

Students are already in the pipeline for both Delta and Sun Country through the partnerships, and spring semester interviews are scheduled for more applicants.

The increased interest in the aviation program has led to a near doubling of the Maverick Flight Team, a student club that competes with other aviation teams in contests of safety and accuracy in navigation and flying. When the team places first or second regionally—as the Maverick team did in its most recent competition—it proceeds to nationals. This year, nationals will be hosted in May by the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

It’s also led to a much-needed increase in faculty for the program. In the past year, a fixed-term role became a full, tenure-track position. An additional faculty member was also added in addition to a full-time advisor.

“We’ve been understaffed for a really long time,” Peterson said. “To me, the advisor position is  going to be a really valuable piece because we have so many students … So we’re getting the manpower now to help manage these big numbers that we’re getting.”

In addition to Delta and Sun Country, the regionals airlines remain active at the University as well. In the fall of 2018, representatives from 13 of those operations came to campus to recruit graduates.

“Everyone wants to be the first person to talk to these students,” Peterson said.

— Joe Tougas