Our final write-up from the World Aviation Festival’s Talent Summit outlines a session chaired by the Venari Partners Director
Hiring – not to mention retaining – talent continues to be a hot topic in aviation. Amid the uncertainty of the last few years, it is more important than ever for airlines to identify, attract, and retain top executive talent. As Director of Venari Partners, James Parker is better placed than most to comment on this – and, as such, we were delighted to see him host a panel on this topic at the World Aviation Festival’s Talent Summit in Lisbon.
Joining James in the conversation, titled ‘Navigating Employment Trends in the Aviation Industry: What are the essential themes in hiring and retention that are shaping the future workforce?’ were:
Over the course of an enlightening session, the panel discussed challenges in the hiring space for aviation, the key patterns affecting employment and recruitment in the industry, and the view on the situation from their respective organisations.
Digital and IT remains a key area of interest – but, as Chris pointed out, it is equally important for airlines not to lose sight of their frontline staff. Demand for travel has been driven by the industry’s post-pandemic recovery, but there are some revealing demographic statistics behind personnel supply. Chris mentioned that 30% of North Americans will be eligible to retire within the next decade, with one quarter of pilots required to retire in the same timeframe (one third of pilots and cabin crew are over the age of 50, meanwhile).
Describing these developments as ‘staggering’, Chris called on the aviation industry to implement better workforce planning and focus on the future. Over the past year, WestJet have hired a VP of Network Planning as well as a VP of Office Planning Analysis, and for Chris, finding talent that understands ‘both sides of the fence’ – i.e., operations staff who understand network planning, plus commercial staff who can advise on sustainable schedules – is key.
The importance of culture
Experience versus mindset is often a balance that companies need to strike when recruiting talent – and it’s no different for Virgin Atlantic. Of course, they look for the right skills for the right role, but Estelle noted that hiring ‘is also about how [candidates] see the world differently, and I think that allows us to then recruit completely differently.’ This ties into the airline’s recent policy shake-up – for instance, the highly publicised decision to allow frontline staff to display tattoos openly. COVID allowed the company to challenge things that had never been questioned internally before, and it has paid off; Estelle noted that after the change in tattoo policy, Virgin Atlantic saw recruitment of cabin crew increase by 520% practically overnight.
'People join a company for the experience that they have every day, as well as the career paths that we can provide to them.' Estelle Hollingsworth, Chief People Officer at Virgin Atlantic
To this end, James described the airline’s recent advert, ‘See the world differently’, as ‘a fantastic way of using culture to reinforce your brand and your employment culture’, noting how unusual it is to see companies focus on employees, rather than customers, in their promotions. The video was truly a collaborative effort, with the Virgin Atlantic’s marketing and people teams being just some of the groups involved in its creation; Estelle underlined how the advert is an effective and accurate depiction of what the airline does every day.
Selling your brand in a tricky market
James emphasised the necessity – as well as the difficulty – of trying to attract candidates from outside the industry to aviation, and asked how companies sell themselves effectively to external talent. For Jim, the vocational aspect of aviation makes it ‘a fulfilling job every day’. That is, aviation is unusual for the service industry in that it helps people to do something they want to do (travel) as opposed to mundane tasks (such as visiting the dentist). Jim believes that finding ways ‘to harness employee experience’ of travelling themselves, rather than providing perks or benefits, is crucial to this end – though Rossann brought a slightly different perspective to the conversation. She highlighted that while Philippine Airlines goes to great efforts to show their value alignment to new hires, it is also investing in providing new opportunities to cabin crew. Rossann, a former cabin attendant with the carrier herself, can attest to this. It is natural to want to try something new after a while, so Philippine Airlines is committed to offering month-long training programmes for flight attendants who want to broaden their horizons. ‘That is really something that inspires them to stay,’ she said, ‘and then eventually they think, “Maybe I could stay in the airline! It’s not a dead-end job at all.”’
Compensation and benefits remain a hugely important topic in aviation recruitment, and the conversation around it differs widely from one region to another. Interestingly, Chris noted the importance of aligning with the aims of unions, noting that salaries for pilots have increased by almost 50% in North America in recent years. Much of that represents playing catch-up, he admitted; while 2022 represented the largest salary budget increase in 20 years, outdated models for baseline pay, in addition to volatile economic conditions in recent years, have meant that the picture for managing compensation was ‘all over the place’. For Chris, ‘ensuring that you see the union as being on your team [...] as opposed to somebody on the other side of the table’ is ‘a very important first step’ – not least when airline executives are increasingly pushing for higher base salaries and seem less concerned about longer-term benefits such as equity and annual bonuses. This is broadly inverse to how many companies approach the matter, meaning that finding a middle ground will ‘continue to be a challenge for modern organisations’.
Elsewhere, attractive discounts and flight benefits that airlines frequently offered to staff in decades past have been rolled back; Jim admitted that ‘there is no consistency’ across the industry, and that while there is significant variation across different airline profiles (full-service vs. low-cost), the largest differences are found across global regions, rather than carriers themselves. Airlines will need to be creative with their benefits offerings to attract top talent going forward – and this applies to in-house working policies, too.
Flexible working: here to stay?
Naturally, it would be pretty difficult for cabin crew or pilots to work from home – increasingly, frontline staff in aviation want to know what benefits they can receive instead of flexible working. Nonetheless, the conversation around remote and hybrid work arrangements continues apace for back-office and executive staff. James expressed surprise that many US carriers have seen their back-office teams largely return to working in-person, noting that while developments stateside often act as a ‘canary down the mine’ for cultural changes, in aviation it is doubtful that European airline staff would agree to a wholesale return to the office.
Chris stressed the need to ‘find a balance’ between in-person and remote work, while Estelle noted that while Virgin Atlantic require staff to do at least three days in-person, they have increased the definition of ‘place of work’ to go beyond the office to encapsulate airports, commercial teams, and even engagements with clients, customers, and partners. ‘It has definitely come up against a little bit of resistance,’ she acknowledged, while adding that Virgin Atlantic are encouraging staff to avail of greater flexibility in terms of starting and finishing times.
For Rossann, meanwhile, hybrid working is a positive development not just for Philippine Airlines employees, but for the country at large. The reason for this is simple: it reduces traffic congestion. Helping staff avoid jams of three hours at peak times means that ‘employees are grateful for it, the bosses are grateful for it – so I think it’s here to stay.’
The dos and don’ts of looking for jobs
What do the panellists advise for those looking for work in aviation? ‘Be super clear as to who you are,’ Estelle said. ‘Always be marketable. The COVID situation told us that we never know what the future holds, so at any point in time you need to feel that you are marketable from a skill, experience – but also from a mindset – perspective.’ The panel agreed on the need for clarity on what it is about aviation that excites you; for Jim, it is absolutely essential for this to come across authentically when you are called for an interview. ‘I think the majority, if not all people, love the industry [...] I think that’s key.’ Serving the passion for travel, ‘whether you’re a cabin crew member or tech resources,’ has to be apparent. Jim has experience both inside and outside the industry, though he describes joining an airline straight out of university as ‘the best thing I ever did [...] It gave the me the experience, knowledge, and understanding of how things operate.’
Indeed, having an eye on the long term can pay dividends, as Chris noted. ‘Think about your career in a non-linear way [...] If COVID taught us anything, it’s really the importance of breadth.’ He stressed that leadership positions at WestJet often come down to which candidate has experienced the most areas of the business. ‘Don’t be afraid to put your hand up for a promotion or a role that maybe is a little outside your comfort zone – because that might be just what it takes to get to the next level.’
'Don't be afraid to put your hand up for a promotion or a role that maybe is a little outside your comfort zone - because that might be just what it takes to get to the next level.' Chris Denton, Executive Advisor, People, Corporate & Sustainability at WestJet
Many thanks to the delegates for a fascinating discussion!