It's no secret that American college graduates are swimming in student loan debt and many are not finding the career they had hoped for. Can the barista in your basement do better? Who's hiring for great well-paying jobs these days?

The answer: airlines. In fact, our major airlines are starting to freak out along with the military because of a huge pilot shortage.

The Air Force is short 1,500 pilots and rumors are drifting around the clouds that they may have to recall some retired pilots to keep force strength. And that is a pittance compared to the problem at major airlines.

It may not be long when your flight is a no-go because no pilots are available to fly the plane.

Is that opportunity for latte boy or mocha girl?

Even Star Wars hunk Harrison Ford is a pilot (admittedly a troubled one), and even the Dutch king takes the pilot seat once in a while. Airlines and the military don't really care if the captain's seat is a male or a female. They just want that seat filled and, they are willing to pay big money to get the gear up, and the plane going. According to a recent report in Airline Pilot Central, United Airlines has an average pay of $269 per flying hour with the highest pay being $328/hr and low at $232/hr. That's a lot of skinny lattes folks.

What's the cost of getting to that seat?

When you consider the cost of a college liberal arts education, the cost of learning to fly is, well peanuts. It's all about rating and experience. Most airlines would prefer an applicant have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating and at least 1,500 hours of flying experience. Holy cupcake! At $150 an hour or more, that means the pilot thing will cost $90,000!

Don't spill your green tea. Before your apron-clad seed asks you to shell out that kind of a tip, you need to understand the process. Before junior gets to the ATP level, there are some steps along the way.

The steps to the sky

According to Eric Hartwell, Flight Training Manager of Lincoln-based Performance Aircraft, a "private" as it is called, will take about 40 hours of training an cost around $25000.

With a private pilot license in his back pocket, Junior can now fly a single-engine plane if he or she stays clouds of the clouds.

But we all know, there are clouds. How does junior get the right to flying when he can't see where he's going? Junior will need an instrument rating. He can't qualify for that one until he has about 200 hours of flying experience. He can start on the instrument training around 180 hours--pilots are required to log actual and simulated flight time in a logbook--but he can't qualify until he has 200 hours, so the training time will help him get to that mark and not run up the flying hour bill.

Find a cheap plane

Look into shared ownership of a single-engine plane. Junior can fly much cheaper in that arrangement then paying flight school rates to rent a plane just to punch holes in the sky and log hours.

Sweet Tea. Junior can start earning money at 250 hours

Junior can start paying his way long before you have to write a huge check, but he will need a couple more ratings. A commercial rating will make him a much smoother pilot and allow him to be paid to fly, and a flight instructor rating which will allow him to teach other people how to fly. Put those two together, and you have a paying job. (Remember, the shortage thing? That means there is a pretty healthy demand for flight instructors.)

The training for those rating can be accomplished well before the 250 flight hour requirement required for the commercial rating. The commercial means Junior gets paid to teach, and Junior can count all of those teaching hour--paid by other students--towards the lofty 1,500-hour goal.

Nice, huh.

Birth of a real pilot

There is only one more rating Junior should get before he gets to the ATP and 1,500 hours. That rating is the multi-engine rating. Yes, it's very pricey, but it opens a lot of doors. Remember, Junior is earning money teaching, and if he is like most pilots who have gotten this far, he had been bitten by the flying bug pretty hard. He'll find the money for the multi-engine.

The pilot job market

Airlines take pilots from the military and the corporate world. Corporations take pilots from flight schools. It's a feeding frenzy out there. The RJ crowd needs help, too. RJ's are smaller 50 seat jets often supplied to bigger airlines by independent carriers. They fly to Peoria instead of Paris.

Remember, this is now all about flight experience.

Instead of scrambling for every tenth of an hour, Junior is racking up flight time and serious experience, and it won't be long before the door opens to a big airline 737 or even the jumbo 777 to Paris.

So what makes a good pilot, anyway?

Attention to detail is a key skill. Give junior a pass on the clothes on your floor. Does junior have a good mind? Can Junior solve problems? Is Junior good with computers? Is Junior a take-charge kind of person when given the opportunity? Is his mind still good and not toasted from pot? Does he have good vision?

Does junior like to travel? How would four days on and three days off sound to him? How about a snazzy uniform that doesn't have whipped cream and half and half spilled all over it?

How about great benefits including his ability to get you great seats to almost anywhere at a real bargain? How about pride in his beachside Florida house or one overlooking Vail? How about you in his basement during your golden years?

Fold up the futon and fill up the trash bags

Your flight has arrived, and Junior could be at the controls. Look into pilot training. Some flight schools offer a demo flight where Junior can go up with a certified instructor and actually fly the plane. If that doesn't scare Junior to death, you can make plans to remodel the basement.

Flying is a great career and compared to a liberal arts degree; it's a reasonable investment with great potential. Doesn't that beat spending a fortune on someone who ends up sitting in your basement?