Finding great talent is the lifeblood of your business, and in many industries today, that’s a challenge. The airline industry is at the top of that challenged list. This article from CNN states, “Over the next two decades, 87 new pilots will need to be trained and ready to fly a commercial airliner every day in order to meet our insatiable demand to travel by air. That’s one every 15 minutes.”With that in mind, I’m thrilled to welcome this week’s guests, Ben Hamilton (President and former CEO) and Alex Teodorescu (VP of Engineering) of IMAGINEAIR. On the show, we talk about technology trends, being the first in a niche, and, as is the focus of this article, sourcing great talent in the midst of a shortage.
Surviving in a Shortage
Let’s start by taking a deeper look at the causes in talent shortages in this particular industry, which come, unsurprisingly from a multitude of directions. The first factor is increased demand for both travel and delivery of goods. The same CNN article states that due to this increase in demand, cargo and passenger airlines worldwide are expected to buy 41,000 new airliners between 2017 and 2036. They will need pilots, 637,000 of them, to fly those airliners, according to Boeing.
Concurrently, pilots at airlines in the United States will be reaching the required retirement age of 65 in record numbers over the next 10 years, with more than 42% (22,000) of pilots at major U.S. airlines retiring. Finally, the allure of becoming a pilot is fading, with many non-military trained pilots sinking as much as $200,000 dollars in their education, and with starting salaries at regional carriers traditionally as low as $30,000 annually. In the past, working with the regional carriers was seen by pilots as a short-term inconvenience, or a stepping stone to the majors. Now, it’s not uncommon for a pilot to spend an entire career in the minors, with salaries topping out under six figures.
This shortage in pilots won’t have an effect on the major carriers. They are able to offer a salary and lifestyle to their pilots that give them the ability to choose the top military and regional carrier pilots. It’s the smaller companies and the military that will feel the shortage – companies like IMAGINEAIR.
The industry is already feeling the shortage. Horizon Air, which operates regional flights for Alaska Airlines, recently canceled 6% of its schedule between August and September because of lack of pilots. Republic Airways filed for bankruptcy last year, citing lack of pilots as one of the causes. The military is also seeing a shortage of pilots. The Department of Defense says that the Air Force is short 1,555 pilots, and is currently offering bonuses of over $450,000 to pilots who stay over the long term.
IMAGINEAIR has the benefit of being unique in their niche. They offer charter flights that are low cost and easy to book. Their top competitors are cars, as they are targeting their services at people on 3-7 hour road trips, with the idea of giving them their day back. They operate out of local airports, meaning you can drive your car right up to the airplane, and you don’t have to take your shoes off or empty your pockets. (Yay!) They allow online booking, which is rare of charter services, and strive to be able to say yes to any requests for charter flights. That means they need to have pilots available at all times.
While they do offer an affordable alternative to road travel, their prices are still more than it would be to take a road trip. Explains Ben, “The number one reason our customers tell us why they use us are the intangibles; they’re using us to save seven hours in their day. But, they’re doing it to get home for dinner with their family at night, or get to their kid’s school play, or their baseball practice, or whatever it might be, and that’s really the reason why people use our service.”
IMAGINEAIR offers a unique value proposition to their clients, and their strategy for finding and maintaining talent in such a talent strapped industry is similar. They aren’t looking to compete with the airlines for pilots, but rather are looking for pilots who want the same kind of lifestyle they make available for their customers. Says Ben, “We have to provide unique benefits, or lifestyle benefits for pilots that want to be home at night, that want unique experiences flying unique customers to different airports…we’re really trying to find those pilots that may not want the airline career.”
They are also looking at ways to create IMAGINEAIR as a powerful stepping stone for pilots who do want to fly for the airlines one day, but aren’t interested in taking the difficult career path through the regional carriers to get there. They are able to offer a more attractive path to the high dollar salaries the airlines offer. Says Ben, “For us, it’s the type of flying they get to do, the work schedules… they pick the days they want to fly, and then they would have to fly those days so they could do something else on the side.” This might mean pilots working their way up to airlines, or those that have an entirely different career, but still want to pursue their love of flying. Making the job workable for your employees in their larger lives and career paths is key to finding the right team.
The challenges faced by IMAGINEAIR are similar to those faced by any midmarket company. You need great talent, but may not be able to match the salary and perks offered by the biggest players in your field. That’s where you need to get creative, and here are some ideas on how to do that.
Lifestyle benefits. IMAGINEAIR is in the unique position to offer pilots a way to do what they love, and still be home with their family most nights. That’s a unique value in that industry. If being home in the evening is the norm for your industry, look at other ways to serve your teams’ lifestyle. More companies are offering unlimited paid time off, and the option to work from home, at least some of the time. Look at ways to make sure your team feels supported in their lifestyle, and you will be in a better position to find and keep the right team.
Develop your team. Even if you think they’ll move on. With IMAGINEAIR that means looking at how to support pilots on their paths to the airlines. With a midmarket company that may mean finding ways to help your employees develop themselves for bigger and better things.
Airlines in other countries have employed highly competitive programs in which they hire pilots with no experience and take them all the way through training programs. Finding ways to choose strong talent and train them in the industry can be a strategy for team building as well.
Dangle the carrot. The military is good at this strategy for retention. They offer very attractive bonuses at key points in the career path of their pilots, in exchange for a commitment for a few more years. They know what the usual exit points are for pilots, and they keep that carrot hanging right at those spots. This isn’t always the most effective strategy with today’s workforce, but knowing your statistics and your team well may make it an effective addition to an overall plan.
Make them feel important. Particularly with millennials, feeling like a contributing part of a team can attract and retain top tier talent. Being transparent and involving new hires in decision making from the very beginning can create loyalty that will keep your team at a low turnover.
IMAGINEAIR has been able to steadily increase their pilot team, even in one of the hardest industries to keep staffed. The unique value they offer to their clients is similar to the one that keeps them well staffed, and knowing that has made their talent retention strategy successful. Basically, it comes down to knowing your staff, and knowing what you have to offer them. With that, you can have the team you need to powerfully serve your customers.