Kelly: Thoughts on the pilot shortage and some things we can do about it.
Colleen Kelly Vice President of Talent Management, Mente Group
Thoughts on the pilot shortage and some things we can do about it
For most of my aviation career, it seems I’ve been hearing about the looming pilot shortage. Talking to people older than I am, it seems the threat of a pilot shortage has been with us on and off going back as far as the 1970s. But like the character in Samuel Becket’s Waiting For Godot, the pilot shortage was always something that was coming, but never actually seemed to get here. Until now. Now the pilot shortage is here, it’s real, and it’s having an impact on all aspects of our industry.
Not long ago I spoke with the director of aviation for a corporate operator on the West Coast who told me she’s lost 4 people, 3 to the airlines and 1 to another corporate operator. The corporate operator had never even interviewed the candidate but offered a 20% pay increase and her employee was gone. This is not an isolated story. It’s happening throughout our industry.
The good news is that everybody I speak with, at all different levels of the industry, shares a common passion to figure this out. We all want to solve the problem. And because the desire to fix this issue is so universal, I believe we are going to get through this.
Why is this happening?
Clearly the demand for pilots is beginning to exceed the supply.But, particularly from a corporate standpoint, some of our past practices are also to blame. In many cases we haven’t done all we could to make the quality of life aspect of our business attractive enough to overcome the airlines’ ability to outbid us financially.
When you begin to study the pilot shortage, you quickly realize this is a complex issue. It’s not just about money. There are many reasons why people do or don’t want to work for your organization.
One of the first factors we need to understand is the role being played by the media. A lot of the reason why flight departments are struggling to retain talent today is because they are being hit very hard on a regular basis with news about the pilot shortage. That’s not to say the shortage isn’t real, because it is. But being constantly bombarded with reminders, particularly when it is coming from authoritative sources such as The Wall Street Journal (source of a recent article), isn’t especially helpful. What’s happening is that people who were perfectly content with their situations see all these things in the media and suddenly begin to ask themselves whether they ought to be asking for more money or perhaps ought to be thinking about a different job. The media have succeeded in making the otherwise happy individual unhappy, and that’s unfortunate.
For corporate operators, the media is contributing in another way to this situation, although in this case it’s a problem entirely of its own making.
After the Big 3 automakers so infamously rode their jets to Washington to beg for a handout, our industry just stopped talking about itself. Our silent approach has been so successful that today many of the students at Embry Riddle, North Dakota and the other big flight schools simply don’t know we exist because the media doesn’t talk about us anymore. As a result, we’re losing a lot of good potential employees because a whole generation of new pilots don’t know about careers in corporate aviation. Maybe it’s time for us to blow our own horns a little bit.
Another factor that the pilot shortage brings into play is compensation. It’s natural enough that a pilot shortage will put upward pressure on compensation. When anything is in short supply, the price invariably goes up. Certainly, no corporate flight department manager wants to have to tell his boss that it’s going to cost 30% more to run the flight department next year because if salaries don’t go up the pilots are going to leave. But compensation is just one leg of a multi-leg stool that supports corporate aviation, so putting too much focus on compensation alone is a mistake. Most of the great corporate flight department leaders I talk to regularly seem to grasp this almost intuitively, but in times like these it’s important both to say and understand it.
The other legs of the stool are quality of life and culture, and for most pilots these 2 factors are more important than compensation. Over the years during my job of recruiting pilots for corporate flight departments, I’ve found that compensation historically falls to the bottom of the priorities for prospective employees. So, when it comes time to try to defend against your pilots being poached by another flight department, compensation isn’t where I’d recommend you begin to build your case. Instead, let’s think about factors that will improve the pilot’s quality of life that can also be accomplished without incurring a lot of extra cost.
One area where this can frequently be accomplished is in scheduling. As a flight department manager, you need to be looking at how many people are manned per aircraft, factored against the total number of hours the department typically flies. In a pilot’s world, even if you have a good schedule, one factor that is highly valued is a hard day off. A hard day off means you are not working, are not on call and will never be called. Most flight departments don’t regularly have hard days off, mostly because they operate on demand 24/7. For a small department with just 1 or 2 airplanes, having hard days off might not be practical, but in my experience of working with departments that have 3 or more aircraft, this can often be arranged. Usually the reason it’s not done is because it was never a priority in the past, but when you’re looking for ways to keep your pilots happy, a little creativity can go a long way.
But why is this hard day off so important to keep pilots happy? Well, just consider a pilot at home on a Friday afternoon with his family in town. He can’t have a glass of wine with them, even if he’s not on the schedule because he must be available if he’s called. Contrast that scenario with an airline job, where each pilot has a fixed schedule. They know exactly what’s happening and they know, with certainty, when it’s their time off. For many older corporate pilots that have lived this “on call” life throughout their careers, it’s what they’ve become used to. But for younger people coming into the industry, some type of fixed time off is more important today.
Based on my experience in interviewing corporate pilots, I know that having as few as 2 hard days off per month is considered a huge benefit. As flight department managers trying to attract and retain good people, we need to be sensitive to this, particularly when we can provide some of these benefits with a little accommodation. And it’s a lot easier than trying to raise everybody’s salary by 30% in order to stay competitive.
Another approach some companies are using to retain employees is Restricted Stock Units (RSUs). These typically have a vesting period of around 3 years, which means you have to stay around to take advantage of them. If I’m a chief pilot and I give you a certain amount of RSUs, that will motivate you to stick around for at least the next 3 years. And beyond that, now you’ve got a fully vested plan that you would leave on the table if you go somewhere else. And, again, from the chief pilot’s standpoint, it’s easier than raising salaries.
Another element to consider is that corporate and airline jobs are fundamentally very different and so are the pilots attracted to them. An airline pilot just flies. It’s all he or she does. A corporate pilot does much more, including attending to passengers, loading baggage and keeping the airplane clean and stocked. There are also ground duties including things like maintaining the SMS, handling scheduling and perhaps moving up to executive leadership. Someone who just wants to fly isn’t likely to do well in a corporate environment. A pilot who enjoys the added elements of corporate aviation is likely to find the airlines a bore. Those are important factors that pilots thinking of changing jobs need to consider.
Bottom line, in dealing with this overall pilot shortage situation I’ve found it’s very important that the people in a flight department know and understand that their leadership acknowledges what’s happening and is looking for creative ways to do something about it. Understanding that their leadership is aware, is critical in maintaining morale. That’s a key element in keeping people happy and keeping your flight crews happy is really what it’s all about.
Read this article and more at the Professional Pilot Online Edition.