"They have to be hired by their 31st birthday. They have to retire by the age of 56," said Gail Zlotky, air traffic control program manager at Middle Tennessee State University. "That's why the job market will keep going."
This job market right now is particularly hot.The FAA is catching up on hiring postponed by budget cuts imposed by last year's sequestration, and thousands of the 14,100 air traffic controllers on the job now are nearing that mandatory retirement age.
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"If you figured 11,000 controllers were hired between 1981 and 1991, there's going to be a large number of controllers leaving by their 56th birthday," said Joe Denofrio, assistant professor at Dowling's aviation program, speaking of the controllers hired after President Ronald Reagan fired thousands during a strike in 1981.
Until this year, the FAA drew a majority of its candidates from two sources: the military and a group of 36 colleges, including Dowling and Middle Tennessee State, which were part of the FAA's collegiate training initiative. Top graduates from these schools were typically assured a spot in the FAA's ATC training program, but now they have to apply along with the rest of the general public who meet certain qualifications. The qualifications include being a U.S. citizen, four years of course study toward a bachelor's degree or at least three years of work experience.
If a candidate meets these and other criteria, they then have to pass a test introduced this year, a biographical assessment.
The schools that used to serve as feeder programs to the FAA are somewhat flummoxed as to why the changes were made. They declined to comment for this article on what they think were behind those changes. Their concern lies in the fact some said their better students failed the biographical test and there is no way for them to know why they failed, and how they might study to make sure they pass the next time.
The FAA did not answer repeated calls and emails from CNBC as to why it changed its admissions process, why the test was introduced, and if it has been successful in bringing in a larger pool of qualified candidates.
"The FAA sets its own hiring policies and NATCA is not involved in those decisions," said the National Air Traffic Control Association in a statement emailed to CNBC. NATCA said it is working closely with the FAA to refine the assessment for the next open job announcement.
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In the meantime, Middle Tennessee State and Dowling continue to teach students interested in air traffic control. The students take courses in the theory of flight, laws and regulation and basic aerodynamics as well as others. In addition, the students spend weeks in simulators and towers learning from seasoned controllers.