Air Traffic Control hiring reform: What it means for UND

Passage of Hoeven-led legislation, via defense bill, gives vital boost to UND’s Air Traffic Management program

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., shown here during his April 2019 visit to UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, was instrumental in passing the federal Air Traffic Control hiring reform as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. During his visit, Hoeven met with Odegard School Associate Dean Beth Bjerke (left) and others to talk about the reform. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Buried inside the nearly 2,000 pages of the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act is a provision that’s a big win for UND.

The provision, which resulted in part from the efforts of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., directs the Federal Aviation Administration to give preference to graduates of collegiate air traffic management programs such as UND’s in the hiring of federal air traffic controllers.

In other words, when President Trump signed the legislation, the stroke of that pen greatly boosted the value of a UND air traffic management degree. And as word of the changes gets out, more students are likely to enroll in the program, UND administrators say.

“The Air Traffic Controller Hiring Reform Act is important for UND Aerospace and its ATC graduates,” said Hoeven after the legislation’s approval. “The University of North Dakota is a premier aviation and aerospace university, and one of the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) programs. Given our nation’s shortage of air traffic controllers, it only makes sense that the FAA hire graduates of UND and other CTI schools, as well as veterans, to help meet our nation’s needs.”

UND Interim President Joshua Wynne noted that UND was one of the FAA’s first approved institutions for the program and has a history of striving for aviation excellence.

“The passage of the reform will ensure the highest quality of aviation professional, like those graduating from UND, will be hired to manage our increasingly complex airspace,” Wynne said. “We greatly appreciate Sen. Hoeven’s ongoing leadership and support on this important issue.”

 Hiring on their side

The FAA places air traffic controllers in towers at airports across the United States. It’s a role that’s vital to maintaining safe skies. When the FAA first changed its hiring practices in 2014, the agency developed two pools for ATC candidates: graduates of CTI programs (including UND’s) and eligible veterans, followed by “off-the-street” candidates applying under vacancy announcements. (Notably, CTI graduates can bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first five weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Okla.)

Paul Drechsel

No more than a 10 percent difference was allowed in the number hired from each pool, meaning the FAA could only hire as many candidates from one pool as there were qualified applicants in the other. This put graduates with four-year degrees and accompanying training experience at a disadvantage.

This development had ramifications for CTI schools such as UND. During last year’s roundtable with Hoeven and Arel, John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences Associate Dean Beth Bjerke said air traffic management programs saw an immediate drop-off in demand from students. It was tough for young people to see the benefits of a four-year degree when their odds of being hired were just as good without one.

“After 2014, the hiring boards weren’t looking specifically at education and qualifications among candidates,” said Paul Drechsel, associate professor and director of UND’s air traffic management program. “Before, I would send the FAA the names and information about our graduates. That helped make up the main pool of applicants to hire from.”

Though there are still two pools of candidates, the new law gives preference to those who have graduated with four-year degrees from CTI schools or have parallel military experience.

“Because of this legislation, our graduates have a preferred hiring path that they can look forward to,” Drechsel said. “They now have the hiring practices on their side.”

Classes filling up

As the nation and world face pilot and air traffic controller shortages, the preference for well-qualified candidates comes at a crucial time. UND has been a leader in training air traffic controllers for nearly 30 years.

After a five-year slump in Air Traffic Management — where enrollment went from a stable 350 majors to a mere 90 — Drechsel said the 2020 numbers already are trending upward. He predicted that the program’s numbers can grow to their pre-2014 level within four years, if growth remains consistent.

“Our classes are filling up,” said Drechsel, implying that additional sections will be added to sophomore-level ATC courses with the expectation to follow through junior and senior-level courses. “We’ll always make room.”

Understand, the latest bill’s provisions aren’t job guarantees. Even before the previous hiring restrictions, the selection and screening processes at the FAA could have graduates waiting up to a year to find out if they have a tower assignment and a date to start training at the FAA Academy. Applicants also must take an aptitude test, which sorts them into categories such as “best qualified” and “well qualified.”

But while there can be uncertainty in the pursuit of an ATC career, Drechsel said a UND degree will both boost students’ odds and help those students become well-rounded aviation professionals. UND Aerospace sets itself apart by requiring its students to graduate with a minor of their choosing, he said.

“The FAA is really pushing that, because they have a lot more jobs in aviation and the FAA than just pilots and air traffic controllers,” Drechsel said. “There are approximately 11,500 air traffic controllers among 100,000 total employees.”

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