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  • Shirley Phillips, DPT, Non-Profit Mentor

Open Skies: Examining Airline Recruitment and Training Strategies

One thing my daughters taught me is that they learned more from my actions than anything I may have tried to teach them. My precocious firstborn learned to repeat my unfortunate slip of a four-letter word faster than you can say green eggs and ham despite my attempts to silence her. In many ways, this principle also applies to our professional lives; We get the message about what is acceptable behavior on the job more from the actions taken by our employers than from a company mission statement. (By the way, what is your company’s mission statement?)

Aviation managers and employers should consider whether their policies and procedures are sending the right message, as well as achieving their hiring goals. For example, many airlines prioritize interviews for applicants who have multiple recommendations from their pilots. As the first person in my family to fly, I didn’t know any pilots when I started my training. Later on, I still didn’t know pilots at some of the airlines I wanted to work for, having trained at a small airport with few opportunities to meet other professional pilots. I didn’t have the means to attend conferences, or a big flight school, where I might have made some of those pilot connections. I also had no role models in aviation to show me how important those relationships might be to my future.

Just as some colleges consider what role legacy should play in their admissions policies and the message it sends, maybe it’s time for some airlines to rethink how connections are used for screening pilots. Those personal connections can provide an important data point to recruiters and create goodwill among their pilots, but if not used carefully, they also may limit the hiring of first-generation pilots.

It’s equally important to examine barriers to entry to flight training. For example, consider how strict policies about attendance at ab initio flight training programs may impact opportunities for applicants from various socio-economic backgrounds. By not providing opportunities for breaks due to illness, economic hardship, pregnancy, or caring for a loved one in an emergency, these policies may disproportionately affect some of the aspiring aviators that have been missing from aviation for far too long. Even if these programs make exceptions to the policies for those already enrolled, the message they have sent to those considering applying may deter those with challenging circumstances in their lives. I know of one potential candidate who has already decided she will not be able to apply because of the medical needs of a sibling who sometimes needs her help on short notice.

Some may say that aviation is a profession that can’t be flexible and accommodating, so why should it matter that these points of entry are inflexible too? There are indeed many aspects of aviation that make it a profession for those who can easily adjust. Yet putting barriers on mostly young pilots, when they are most vulnerable to persistent inequalities, may perpetuate the lack of diversity in aviation. It sends the message that only those who can completely immerse themselves in aviation for several years need to apply. I know that my circumstances, with a family that ended all financial support for me and my sibling as soon as we graduated from high school, would never have allowed me to complete such a program.

While some airlines are offering scholarships to diverse or economically disadvantaged candidates, I think it’s also important to make sure that the requirements for completing their program allow applicants to deal with unplanned life events. Flying is all about dealing with and planning for uncertainties, and we should allow pilots in training to address their unexpected life events too. Certainly, the pandemic has made it clear that those who have the least financial means are disproportionately affected when things go awry. We know life is as fickle as the weather, but shouldn’t we do better to help all those who yearn to fly to navigate around the storms?

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