Industry execs share tips for engaging aviation and aerospace workers

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | July 18, 2019

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 32 seconds.

It’s on the minds of everyone in aviation and aerospace these days: How do we attract, educate and retain top talent in the face of a fierce labour shortage?

The panel advised that taking the time to listen to employees' concerns and desires can go a long way in retaining workers. Andy Cline Photo
On average, The Wynford Group found it takes 52 days to fill an aircraft maintenance position in Canada. Of all industry sectors, the maintenance engineer shortage is the most critical, and globally we are not producing enough graduates to meet the growing demand. Andy Cline Photo

On July 10, industry leaders came together at the 2019 Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) convention in Calgary to share ideas, best practices and talent tips.

Moderated by Suzanne Kearns, associate professor in the aviation program at the University of Waterloo, the panel discussion included James Elian, president and COO of AirSprint Private Aviation; Gail Evans, president of The Wynford Group; Ian Ross, director, HR, Flying Colours Corporation; Richard Hotchkiss, president and CEO of Sunwest Aviation Ltd.; Tracy Medve, president of KF Aerospace; and Bill McGoey, president, Morningstar Air Express and Aurora Jet Partners.

Evans, whose firm The Wynford Group conducted the 2019 CBAA Compensation Survey, presented preliminary results to the audience. She noted that this year, “we heard a lot of concern for the attraction and retention of pilots in the [business aviation] sector.”

The biannual survey, which collected information about salaries and employer practices, was completed at no cost to participants, who will each receive a copy of the general results once they are formally released.

It includes cash comparisons for 63 different industry positions in the management, administration, ramp, maintenance, flight crew, safety and rotary sectors. New to this year’s survey were 11 new positions, modified flight crew positions based on aircraft category, and questions on recruitment and retention.

“Overall, salary differentials are keeping pace with inflation and cost of living,” said Evans. “Larger companies do tend to pay a bit more for sales and admin, and with maintenance there isn’t as much difference.”

On average, she said it takes 41 days to fill a flight crew job while it takes 52 days to fill a maintenance position. Employee referrals, social media and job boards continue to be popular when it comes to attracting new candidates. As well, Evans said 90 per cent of companies surveyed conducted one-on-one interviews, and an increasing number uses a preliminary phone interview to narrow the applicant field.

“We are also seeing some growth in the variable pay scenario, such as bonuses and shares in the company,” she concluded. “There is a trend to increase short-term and long-term incentive plans that are based upon the achievement of specific goals.”

Following Evans’ presentation, executives weighed in on how their companies are meeting the challenges presented by today’s tight labour market.

AirSprint’s James Elian outlined how his Calgary-based company has improved its employee retention performance over the last 12 years.

“AirSprint had a problem in 2007,” he told the audience. “Our attrition was close to 37 per cent for flight crew. They were going to other operators, the airlines, etc. I found that for every jet captain that left us, the impact to AirSprint was a cost of $90,000 per person. That includes rehiring, training, efficiencies of aircraft, etc.

“Today, we are projecting for 2019 that we’re trending to be less than 10 per cent attrition in an arguably much harder time.”

So, what is AirSprint’s turnaround secret? It’s simple, said Elian. Just hire the right person for the job.

“We took a really detailed look at what type of pilot works at AirSprint. We engaged a company to survey and analyze pilots’ behaviour. Now, every person who applies at AirSprint does this survey before the interview to determine if they are a good fit for the job. They need to truly understand what we are looking for and ask questions accordingly.

“The secret was just to put in the work and hire the right people. Don’t hire for a type rating – it’s a short-term cost.”

In addition, Elian said AirSprint developed a preferential bidding system that allows pilots to have input into their work schedules. Typically, pilots are granted around 90 per cent of their requests for time off.

Sunwest Aviation’s Hotchkiss said the company has implemented a few tools to attract new people while retaining its 75 pilots, 55 maintenance staff, and 20 FBO employees.

First, he said the company cultivates local affiliations with community groups, many of whom are often surprised by the breadth of services offered at Sunwest.

“We try to focus on hiring the right people as well,” said Hotchkiss. “There are some people that like the type of flying we do. So, we try to focus on those people. We try to make them feel like they’re part of a team at Sunwest. I sit down with my partner, Mike [Gocal], and spend an hour with the [new] people. We try to get to know them and explain our expectations and how things work. The feedback from that has been very, very positive.”

The BizAv Young Talent Initiative, started at CBAA 2018, is one avenue the industry has successfully explored to drum up interest among younger people entering the work force. Andy Cline Photo
Outreach is critical to recruitment. The BizAv Young Talent Initiative, launched at CBAA 2018, aims to introduce young people to the many career possibilities in business aviation. Andy Cline Photo

Sunwest offers its pilots flexible schedules owing to its wide variety of operations, including workforce transit, medevac and corporate jet charters.

“If you have a pilot who wants to be home every night, we have a job for them. And if a pilot has itchy feet and wants to travel the world, we have a job for them, too. And, we allow them to have input into customizing their schedule,” he continued. “We also offer flex hours for maintenance; for admin, it’s very important to offer flexible hours.”

Tired of what he called the “confrontational” annual employee review process, Hotchkiss said Sunwest has switched to a more “developmental” approach. The company also focuses on added perks such as social activities and an onsite gym for employees.

“It’s hard to compete sometimes with the airlines, for example, but we try to get our people to focus on the package,” he concluded. “Treat people fairly, be open, and give them meaningful and challenging work – recognize their hard work.”

In Peterborough, Ont., aircraft completions, sales, and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider Flying Colours Corp. works within the local community to grow its staff, which now numbers more than 300 employees.

Ian Ross, the company’s director of human resources, said outreach is a key element of Flying Colours’ recruitment plan.

“Recruiting is a huge challenge and we live it every single day,” he said. “We are in the midst of an expansion; construction has started and my challenge is to populate that building with people.

“We tend to take the word to the colleges, tech schools, and career fairs, to spread the word about the many professions in aviation, both commercial and business,” he said.

“Once you take the time to explain or show someone the quality of work and the sustained effort in getting a project done, they generally walk away with the feeling this is something they might be interested in. Invest the time, be passionate about the subject matter, and in terms of onboarding those candidates you must listen to them and understand their concerns.”

Flying Colours has toured most of the local area, said Ross, in an effort to engage possible new recruits.

He acknowledged that today’s labour market is very challenging and recruitment is “business critical.”

With the next generation of workers attracted by high-tech and digital industries, “thinking laterally is an essential part of a recruitment strategy in the current climate,” he concluded.

KF Aerospace president Tracy Medve said the panel discussion was both timely and important.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary next March, Kelowna, B.C.-headquartered KF Aerospace operates aircraft, performs MRO services, and trains military pilots.

“I’m going to focus on the MRO side of our business, because nobody is talking about it enough,” she said. “Pilots get all the glory and all the focus, but if we don’t have people to look after the aircraft, we’re going nowhere.”

With three maintenance bases in Kelowna, Hamilton, Ont., and Vancouver, the company employs a total of 1,028 people. About 544 of them are in the various technical trades – and only six per cent of those employees are female.

“If you look around this room, it’s very representative of the demographics in our industry in terms of both age and gender,” said Medve. “If we don’t solve that, we won’t get this fixed. We are not paying enough attention to how we attract females to this industry. By January of 2020, between Hamilton and Kelowna, we will need at least another 85 to 100 positions and we’ve already hired hundreds in the last three years.”

KF Aerospace attends job fairs and school tours for potential candidates.

“We even do seniors’ tours and tell them to bring us their daughters and their grandchildren,” said Medve with a laugh. “We also have very strong relations with Mohawk College in Hamilton . . .  and I’m going to dig an underground tunnel to our hangar so they can’t go anywhere else! We also have the KF Centre for Excellence in Kelowna, that will not only look at the history of innovation in the Okanagan Valley, but also hopefully a component with Okanagan College where they will have a training facility there as well.”

She said KF Aerospace also participates in both provincial and federal foreign worker programs. The company has developed two-week, tailored courses to train new employees on company culture and safety procedures.

“I think one important thing we do is conduct regular employee engagement surveys,” she added. “We’re finding that as our employee demographics change, the things we need to do to keep our employees engaged is changing, and we have to pay attention to that. We also benchmark our salaries regularly against our competitors.”

Lastly, KR Aerospace has developed an aircraft service technician trade.

“If you can’t get more qualified AMEs, you have to free up their time by offloading all those elementary maintenance activities that they used to do,” explained Medve. “So, we formed this aircraft service technician trade; they have a logbook and go through a rigorous training program. They look after washing the plane, servicing the interiors, removals, towing the planes, etc. This frees up the AMEs’ time so they can do the very things they were trained to do. That has been hugely helpful, and we continue to develop that program.”

The final panel speaker was Bill McGoey, president of Aurora Jet Partners and Morningstar Air Express, based in Edmonton, Alta.

With about 250 employees in total, he said the company is doing well, with an attrition rate below 10 per cent.

“There are a few things we’ve done that have generated some really good feedback . . . For example, we have mandatory exit interviews. Employees moving on will tell you exactly why they’re leaving, and it may be an opportunity to fix something that isn’t right.

“Listening to your employees and truly knowing where their problems are is hard. We had 200 employees before we actually hired an HR professional – that was way too late. She has coordinated our employee survey.”

For the survey to be effective, Aurora found it has to be distributed in a culture of psychological safety.

“Disgruntled employees will speak up if they feel they are safe from retribution. Then, you have to share the survey results whether you like them or not. Thirdly, you have to respond to those areas of weakness.”

McGoey also schedules time with his staff to discuss areas needing improvement. This interaction improves trust and mutual respect.

“Retention does come before attraction,” he said. “From a grassroots perspective, we have to get better at attracting females and keeping the older generation longer. But if you already have happy employees, they are your best recruiters.”

Panel moderator Suzanne Kearns summed up the dire human resources need in global aviation and aerospace. She told the audience she had mapped out how many competent professionals would have to be produced every single day to meet industry demand.

“We would have to produce 67 pilots every single day; 14 air traffic controllers; and 141 maintenance engineers every day. The maintenance engineer shortage is the most critical of all the shortages and it should be given the respect and attention it deserves.

“All projections state that our global capacity to train people is less than this need,” she said. “So, we really need to start thinking hard about not just how we bring people in, but also about how we train them and retain them.”

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