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To recruit, retain better crew, use better lures

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By Bob Howie

I’ve long compared the aviation world in which I live to the yachting world, which I only visit, in terms of both professions’ similarities … of which there are many.

Finding – and keeping – good help in both industries is challenging, and the long-forecast pilot shortage in aviation has finally arrived, albeit about 25 years later than expected, but arrived it has along with myriad headaches in finding and keeping good crews.

Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what shortage exists, if any, in the yachting world comparatively speaking, but I do know the trials and tribulations of crew retention and how it plays out across any board.

Folks, let face it. Keeping good crew is neither cheap nor easy. In the aviation world, it’s getting increasingly expensive in terms, benefits and time spent finding ways to incentivize crews from leaving.

Aviation and yachting have similar crew credentialing pathways; certifications and experience playing key roles as well as looking for the kinds of crew that “fit” into the organization’s environment; a “people like us” approach that carries the promise that maybe the new-hires will stick around long enough to at least get out of training and out on the line.

That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Professional aviation training organizations told me recently the word has been put out that within two years there’s going to be a demand to train at least 90 pilots a day. That demand will strain current instructor staffing. It takes about 12 months to bring in an instructor – even though the would-be instructor is an experienced pilot – and bring them up to full operational certification.

The lack-of-instructors situation is being further exacerbated by airlines and corporate operators syphoning off instructors with lucrative offers that puts the instructors back in cockpits.

But, that’s not the only burden.

A senior commercial pilot friend of mine tells me his airline alone within two years will be retiring as many as 800 pilots a year. His concern is there are currently not enough pilots in the traditional pipelines to meet that demand as well as what could reasonably be assumed will be similar demands at the other lines, not to mention corporate and charter operators.

An operator looking to hire pilots today knows the days of pilots looking to build time for low pay are over as the supply of qualified crew is drying up.

In the face of this, then, what can operators do to remain competitive and attractive to the dwindling qualified crew base? First, in my opinion, take an objective look at what you offer and dump the tendency to say, “Well, it’s what everybody else is offering.”

It’s expensive and time consuming to recruit new hires. In aviation, it takes anywhere from 90 days to six months to put a pilot on line. If an operator can’t keep that new hire on the line for at least a year, preferably longer, recruiting and training costs compound to the point where most owners won’t pay for that revolving cockpit door and will blame the operator’s business practices … sometimes rightfully so.

My dad once said, “If you want to catch a big fish, you have to use a big lure.” Same thing goes here. I know, there are budgets to consider, but I’ve seen the consequence – sometimes tragic – of owners who will spend millions on an airplane and cut corners in the cockpit.

And don’t mistakenly think that once hired, a crew member has stopped looking for a job. I’m seeing cases in which new hires are dropping out of training to go over to another operator who’s paying $5,000 a year more. I know one case where a pilot resigned on the spot to take a job paying $40,000 a year more with better benefits and schedules.

Operators today should understand that the paradigm has shifted against them; that qualified crew members, while incentivized by the pay, are looking beyond the check in terms of working conditions, crew resource management (which includes how captains administrate), benefits in terms of insurance, time off, vacation and expenses management.

It’s true that as employers we can often learn a lot about a prospective employee by mining the Internet, but so can those prospective new hires learn about us. Employers, in searching for the best of the best, should refrain from veiling working conditions and benefits including salaries from their Internet efforts.

I also believe that once hired, new crew should be provided printed employee handbooks that include job descriptions, compensation and other compensable factors that play into an employee’s success. These factors could be increased pay for advanced certifications, longevity, conditional bonuses and a promotions schedule.

Listen, word gets around, about the operation, the staff, crews, captains, everything. I know captains I’d happily fly with again – even jump at the opportunity to fly with again – and I know captains I wouldn’t even consider being at the same airport with. How captains (presidents, CEOs, supervisors, what have you) behave plays as important of a role as anything else.

Recruitment and crew retention today is no longer about just hanging out a flyer or placing an ad. It’s as much about prudent financial management as it is finding the right fit for your operation. If it’s not working out so well for you, it might just be that your lure ain’t quite big enough.

Bob Howie is a senior captain at Wing Aviation Charter Services in Houston, Texas. He spent 13 years as a freelance writer with the Houston Chronicle and is also published in national aviation trade publications. A bluewater-experienced sailor, Bob is a lifelong boat owner. Comments on this essay are welcome below.

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