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Specialist aviation finance courses take off in Irish universities

Aviation finance industry and education system meeting evolving skills needs

Aviation Skillnet delivers a range of programmes which address key needs in the aviation and aerospace sector. Photograph: iStock

Aviation Skillnet delivers a range of programmes which address key needs in the aviation and aerospace sector. Photograph: iStock


The aviation leasing business is characterised by innovation and rapid change and the skills needs of the industry are constantly evolving as a result. “It is really important that the skills supply matches the rate of change in the industry,” says Dave Flynn, executive director of Skillnet Ireland, the national agency for workforce learning.

“There is a very well established system in place to support the skills needs of aviation finance companies and their staff,” he adds. “Skillnet Ireland has been supporting the sector for over 10 years now. We support groups of companies that come together to identify common training needs.”

One of these groups is Aviation Skillnet, a learning network for companies of all sizes in the aviation and aerospace sector. “There are 60 companies in Aviation Skillnet and these include a number of professional service and advisory firms,” Flynn says.

The Skillnet delivers a range of programmes which address key needs in the sector and has worked with higher education institutes on the development of specialist courses for the industry. These include the aviation management elective on the University of Limerick MBA programme. The specialist diploma in aviation leasing and finance, also from UL, is the first level-nine university-accredited programme in Ireland tailored for the aviation leasing sector.

“Alongside these longer-term education programmes the Aviation Skillnet also provides multiple short, sharp training initiatives each year to address very specific needs identified by companies in the sector,” he adds.

Industry programmes

Skillnet Ireland also develops programmes for the industry. “The Department of Finance oversees IFS2020 strategy and aviation finance is part of that. Skillnet Ireland is playing a role in the skills development area. For example, in the last year or so we identified a need for executives in the industry to move into more senior roles. We looked at what additional skills they might need to do this and designed the future aviation leaders programme as a result.”

Another programme specifically designed to meet the needs of the industry is the UCD Smurfit School MSc in aviation finance. The course is the only one of its kind in Europe and aims to advance students’ understanding of all aspects of aviation finance, with a specific focus on the practical features of global aviation markets.

“We took in our first cohort of students in 2016 and we are now on our third,” says academic director Dr Thomas Conlon. “From my perspective, Ireland is certainly the right country for the course. Fifty per cent of the world’s aircraft are leased, and 50 per cent of those are leased from Ireland. That has offered us a significant advantage as we have been able to draw in industry expertise to support the course.

“What we’re looking to do is train future leaders in the aviation finance sector,” he adds. “We take in students from very different backgrounds, not just commerce. We have engineers, science graduates, and we’ve had a couple of real-life rocket scientists as well. We make no assumptions on financial knowledge – we cover that in the first semester.”

In the second semester, students learn about the specifics of aviation finance. “They learn how to fund the purchase of an aircraft, how to make educated decisions about what type of aircraft to include in a portfolio. They also learn about the law, the tax rules and so on which apply to the area. We’ve also been fortunate to be supported by the market leaders in the aviation finance sector.”

Those market leaders provide guest lecturers and a significant number of internships to appropriately qualified graduates.

The programme is available on a full-time and part-time basis. “We have 30 students a year on the full-time programme, with a small number of part-time students. The students come from Ireland, Europe and further afield, including Asia, China and India. We are taking applications for the 2019 intake now. Applicants should have at least a 2.1 undergraduate degree, potentially one with a quantitative flavour to it. It is also critical that they want to do it with a view to entering the sector.”

Demand for places is high, he advises, as is demand for course graduates. “Employability is very strong. It’s a growing industry. The big players are growing and more are coming into the space year on year. We have very few front-office roles in the financial services industry here, but aviation finance is one area that does offer them.”

Another unique course is the DCU BSc in aviation management with optional pilot studies. “It’s the only course in Ireland at university level to combine piloting and aviation management,” says Dr Marina Efthymiou, assistant professor in aviation management and course director for DCU’s MSc in aviation leadership.

The first three years of the BSc course provide a general introduction to business analysis, the aviation sector, technical aspects of piloting and industry-relevant work experience. In the fourth year, the course divides into two streams. Some students opt to enter flight training to qualify as a commercial pilot; others will choose to follow more specialist studies in aviation management.

“Pilots coming out of the course are more employable,” says Efthymiou. “Pilots need to go for assessment with the airlines when applying for jobs and some fail at interview. They may not know how to work with teams or talk to people properly. The airlines are now looking for pilots with broader skillsets and that’s what they get with graduates from our course. We accept 40 students each year and employability is 100 per cent. Most of our graduates are employed in Ireland, while some have moved abroad out of choice. Unfortunately, we are limited to 40 students each year.”

Career choice

Interestingly, career choice tends to change over time. “In year one all the students want to be pilots. By year three about 30 per cent of them wanted to go into leasing. They are attracted first by the salary, and then by the international dimension and the fact that it is an exciting, fast-moving industry.”

DCU also has a master’s degree in aviation leadership available on a full-time and part-time basis. “The part-time programme is aimed at executives currently working in the industry here, while the full-time course caters for international students,” she says. “We also have a number of students from outside the aviation industry taking the course who are interested in pursuing careers in the sector. We have had students from companies like PayPal, Intel and Bank of Ireland as well as the supermarket industry.”

Part-time students on the programme need to be on campus for only two days per month in the academic terms – eight months of the year – which makes it easy to continue full-time employment. Full-time students need to be on campus for four days per month in the academic year and can complete the course within one year.

Course modules include aviation governance and regulation; aviation leadership and management; and strategy organisation and innovation.

With a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes available as well as a number of industry-led training programmes, the skills needs of the Irish aviation finance sector are well catered for.