Airports Compete for New Talent

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When folks find out I was President of Airports Council North America (ACI-NA) for eight years, I tend to get a lot of questions. Depending on who I am talking to, the first questions are often about whether I get free flights or parking or food (parking is a big one, everyone thinks free parking would be the coolest perk, but alas!).

After the frivolous subjects are dealt with, people always want to know more about what happens behind the scenes. And the more people learn, the more they want to know what kind of person it takes to run such an operation, both at the CEO and the operational levels. The more we talk, the more often I hear the same thing: "What an unusual combination of capabilities these people must have. Where do you find them?"

But when I talk to people inside the industry, I get the following question: "What is it that airport leaders talk about in restaurants, hallways and bars? What is it they talk about when they can talk about anything?"

I get that question because over the years I had the good fortune of meeting, and working with the leaders of many of the world’s leading airports. I have spent hundreds of hours with them all over the world, in various meetings, hallways, bars and restaurants. So, I have a pretty good idea what’s on their minds.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with the discussion in the second paragraph. And, surprisingly, the answer is the same wherever in the world one might go. What is most on their minds, what they most talk about and most want to pick the brains of their peers about is…..Human Resources.

You must be kidding! Human Resources?!? That is not the answer anyone expects. Security. Safety. Air Service (which does come a close second). Dealing with public expectations. These are all answers that most people would expect, they are the “sexy” answers. But the real answer is Human Resources. Or, put another way, People.

It is hard to understand sometimes just how rapidly the airport industry is changing. From the highly regulated and consistent activity it had been for decades, it has morphed into an industry that is increasingly deregulated economically and an industry that must increasingly find its talent in new places. An industry that really never had to work hard to keep talent, now has to work overtime on it. Let’s look at some of the recent trends.

Changing Career Paths

When aviation was much more regulated and controlled economically by governments, the career path was simple, and the jobs never changed. Most airport organizational charts looked pretty similar.  

Most employees began working at airports right out of school and stayed their whole careers. They got certain degrees from certain schools and achieved certain certifications. Many airports were departments of governments back in the day, so government personnel rules applied (in some places in the U.S. this remains the case, incredibly).

When I first took the job at ACI-NA ten years ago, a great many of the Canadian airport employees I knew had once drawn a paycheck from Transport Canada. Today, there are very few left. Where at one time the industry had a ready supply of talent that was constantly replenishing itself, today that is no longer the case.

It was an industry that seemed to demand a certain skill set, one that was unique. Airports did not compete much with other sectors of the economy for talent. In those days, airports were mere facilities and had not yet truly morphed into the business-like, high-tech, economic engines they are today. You either knew how to work at an airport or you didn’t. You either had the right initials after your name, or you didn’t.

But things have changed…..


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Good News is Bad News

Airports are no longer just facilities that must be maintained and run to a certain standard. They are businesses. They are centers of high tech. They are cities in and of themselves, social units if you will. Today’s airport is not just a place, a facility. The airport of today is a much more dynamic place, with a broader set of imperatives and challenges. This is great news for the local, national and global economies. The world is connected as never before, and people traveling through and working at airports are able to accomplish things that would have been hard to imagine just a decade or two ago. This is not just good news, it is great news!

But as is so often the case, the good news is the bad news. Or at least a major challenge.

What this means is that airports can no longer simply rely on the usual pipeline of talent, and it means that the traditional skill set and training regimen is no longer adequate.

About a generation ago, an airport CEO I know went back to graduate school, mid-career, and got a Masters in Business Administration.  Some thought this odd, but he understood better than most how the industry is changing. He had come to it through the usual path, military, then to the airport, with the right initials after his name.  But he saw the change and knew he needed more.  Today, while the industry in the US may not be awash with MBA’s, you will find many more airport leaders with a strong grasp of finance and business concepts.  

Around the world, you will find this trend on steroids. According to Michael Bell from the executive placement firm Spencer Stuart, only 15 percent of airport CEOs globally came from within the airport industry. Think about that.  Just one out of seven globally.  

The United States is not quite there yet, but recent hires such as Jack Potter in Washington and Sean Donohue at Dallas Ft. Worth show the trend is moving here. And I can tell you, from all those conversations in those bars and restaurants that this has gotten the attention of the US industry.

Recently, I moderated a panel at the Airport Revenue News (ARN) Conference on which Bell participated. He said the following: “If you are an airport executive in the U.S. and you grew up in the U.S. and are not yet a CEO, I’d be concerned.” (As quoted in ARN, April 2015 magazine).  

The same dynamic is true at all levels, not just for CEO’s. As airports grow in sophistication on the business side, and as they make ever greater use of technology, the same old preparation is not going to be enough. And the same old way of keeping employees in the industry will have to change.

Retaining Airport Talent

If airport leaders are increasingly coming from outside the industry, it is equally true that they are increasingly leaving their positions for jobs outside the airport sector. At one time, an airport CEO’s main concern was that his (mostly male back then) people might leave to go to another airport, maybe one slightly bigger. This presented a certain challenge, but a predictable one. Today, talented people at airports have many other options, and the challenge of retaining them is exponentially greater (in places like the US with antiquated public ownership models, this is exacerbated by low levels of salary). This is causing a complete re-think of how airport talent is trained and provided with professional development opportunities. ACI World is leading the way in this globally, with many of the industry’s best minds focused on the problem. Organizations offering traditional training, provided in traditional settings, will be unable to compete. And today’s talent is not going to be satisfied with some sort of seniority system “guaranteeing” advancement, “eventually.”

When the challenge has morphed from worrying about losing someone to another airport, to now worrying about losing someone to the financial world or to Google, it is something that cannot be addressed simply by developing some new kind of webinar or something. And lest you think this is confined just to airports, the airlines have also noticed these trends. One of the more significant hires recently, I think, was IATA hiring Jill Nealon away from Dubai airport to focus on the airline workforce of the future.

Here Come the Millennials

If you are 45 and in the airport industry, chances are your career started the same as someone 20 and 40 years before. But if you are 25 or 35….not so much. And the expectations are far different.

Millennials* have a far greater expectation that their jobs will come with professional development opportunities, and with flexibility in scheduling and expectations, than did previous generations. To them, the fast pace of change is nothing new, that’s the world they were born into.

Aviation is not always open to fast change and flexibility, we have standards we must meet and the highest level of safety and service expectations to fulfill. For the impatient, fast-paced, millennial, risk aversion is not the default position. In addition, while the baby boomer generation may have viewed aviation as an exotic, cool and romantic industry, the millennial generation takes it for granted. They have never been on a plane that burst into applause on landing. To them, aviation is like any other utility. I do not think the smell of jet fuel will enter their bloodstreams and consciousness the way it did for the predecessors. To enter and stay in the industry will be a more calculated decision for them.

Therefore, the airport industry will have to adjust quickly, because the generation that came into the industry 40 years ago, the baby boomers, are retiring in large numbers and the generation in between the boomers and millennials is smaller. So, the airport industry will increasingly rely on a new generation that has a different expectation of its career path, a different level of acceptance of change, and a less romantic view of aviation overall.

My sense is that the airport industry is a little afraid of the millennial generation right now. This will change, but it will take effort, and a willingness to change.

The Future is Bright

This post reads like a cautionary tale, at best. Yet, I am confident and optimistic. The airport industry has shown a remarkable ability to generate new talent and ideas over time. There have been several periods when legendary figures have left the scene, leaving many to wonder if we'll ever be the same. But then a new generation comes along and shapes a new future.

I do think the challenges are different this time. The skills required are evolving, and the need to provide the training and development programs required is also changing.

Airports are finding talent in new places, and are often competing against new and different industries to keep their people. The airport industry, as a profession, is reinventing itself before our eyes, because it must.

Let me end where I began. The fact that THIS is the issue most on the minds of airport leaders in the bars and restaurants, to me, is a cause for great optimism and hope. As I’ve said before, it is what you think and talk about when you can think and talk about ANYTHING that tells me what is truly on one's mind. Those bar and restaurant conversations give me great hope.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

*Researchers define Millennials as the group born between the 1980s and early 2000s.

 

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