Air cargo employers need to adapt their approaches in response to a personnel landscape that has changed quite radically over the past two and a half years, according to panellists and other contributors at this year’s ACHL conference, reports Will Waters
Recruitment and retention of staff have been major issues for some years, but they have risen to the top of the agenda since the pandemic for the whole air cargo sector, and especially among air cargo handling companies.
And with competition for talent higher than ever, along with the need for greater innovation, digitalisation and new ideas, appealing to as diverse a pool as possible has also become ever more important, especially in a sector that has traditionally been male dominated – in both senior management and ‘blue-collar’ roles. But so has the need to appeal to the next generation of employees and potential leaders, many of whom have different priorities, options and opportunities to those of the past.
Glyn Hughes, director general of TIACA, highlighted the need to present job opportunities in different ways, in order to attract those that may not have considered the air freight sector previously. For example, to tailor job descriptions in ways that encourage applicants from women – who, statistically, may be more likely than men to rule themselves out if they lack one or two skills from a long list of skill requirements.
Janet Wallace, senior director for cargo transformation at Air Canada, said the upheaval of the pandemic had thrown many recruitment, training and development plans into disarray, noting: “For the past two and a half years, we’ve just been doing basic training. We have employees that end up in a warehouse or on the ramp, and it’s really not their preference. So, we spend three, six weeks’ worth of training and eventually they get out of the function. At this point, we’re just moving people around, trying to make things work.”
Offering a career path
She distinguished between the needs and expectations when hiring and onboarding blue-collar staff versus new managers, which “demand development. What are you going to give me? What’s my next step? They’re looking for a career path, and if you can’t demonstrate that, they’ll be looking for the next thing.”
Teresa Wojtanka, head of operations support and innovation at cargo handling group Dnata, commented: “I think we have the opportunity to make the training attractive. And from the career path perspective, we do not have to only focus on training for staff we are putting at the lower levels; we should have a complete programme of training – and that also makes the workplace attractive.”
Arpad Szakal, principal consultant for Cormis Partners, said “things have changed quite radically over the past two and a half years”, with employers in a much less powerful position. So, rather than the job description being “essentially a set of demands on the candidate”, employers now need to spend more time explaining “what is on offer” to potential staff and “what they can become, if they join this organisation. This is where the job description is often inadequate” because it tends to be about what the candidate needs to do rather than explaining the opportunity available.
Szakal said that in many ways, “airlines, airports, ground handlers are not each other’s competitors, when it comes to the talent space today”; the competitor is “Google, technology companies, power, utilities, Energy Renewables companies”.
He added: “It is quite important to realise things have shifted, and to be a bit more humble when you’re trying to attract people, no matter what level – whether it’s in senior leadership or ground staff.”
Finding what interests staff
Responding to the question of how to make people love the air cargo industry, Megha Palkar, assistant manager at IATA quality initiative Cargo iQ, said she had appreciated that her employer had given her the opportunity to explore different parts of the business and wanted her to work in the areas that most interested her.
Wojtanka said aviation companies “are in a quite privileged position”, because people often love the industry before they join. But to get people to stay, people need to be in an attractive workplace, including within an industry and organisation they perceive to be growing and developing, future-facing and innovative.
Wallace said there are lots of roles for people to grow into, but this is not always immediately obvious to potential employees. “My first job description asked me if I would work nights and weekends and if I can lift 32 kilos. I don’t think that’s representative of what I do today,” she noted. “So, you have to have a passion for this and you have to be willing to share it.”
Hughes said those in the sector have a responsibility to try to ignite that passion – for example, by focusing “on the emotional impact of what is in the boxes” that air freight moves, which in many cases “are changing people’s lives” and “improve the economic prospects of a particular country and the livelihoods of the people receiving the cargo”.
The value of air freight
Hughes also highlighted the importance of communicating about “the overall value of this industry”, highlighting some IATA statistics he shared with ministers of transport at an ICAO event during Covid, where much of the discussion had been about passenger. The figures highlighted that “in 2019, so pre-Covid, the value that the global economy benefited from inbound tourism by air was $850 billion. In that same year, the value that those same countries derived from exporting air cargo was $6.4 trillion. So, the value to national economic prosperity was eight times greater. Last year, it was 20 times greater.”
He continued: “So, if you want to ignite interest and passion in the next generation, talk about the economic and social benefits of air cargo, and also the human element of that emotional connectivity – what this industry moves, and how it impacts people positively.”
Wojtanka asked: “How often do we share this information with our staff? And how often do we make them aware of what’s the purpose of the job that they’re doing? I think that’s the part we’re missing at the moment.”
Szakal noted: “I’m all for passion, but it’s not going to get you too far” as an employer looking to recruit staff. He also said “telling is one thing, whereas showing is another” arguing that the industry needed to do more to showcase its role.
Panel moderator Chris Notter agreed that employees need to know “the storyline” in order to get passionate about it. He asked delegates how many of them had gone down to the warehouse floor in the last month “and interacted with the workforce and given them a bit of a strategic or a tactical update or the storyline of what your business is doing”?
Kester Meijer, director for operational integrity, compliance and safety at KLM Cargo, said when he goes down to the warehouse floor, “the topic they talk most about is safety”, and how it could be improved – “and especially when you have a temporary workforce. If I look at the number of lost work-day cases – when somebody reports ill for more than one day, as a consequence of an accident at work – for every one KLM person, we will have four accidents with temp agency people.”
He says agency staff tend to be regarded as “cheap labour, in the sense that you’re not really responsible for the hiring”, although “we feel that we get people who are trained. But they don’t have the experience in our environment – especially if you look at build-up where there are forklifts with very long forks moving around; it’s like a dance.
“That’s why they get injured four times as often as experienced KLM staff in the warehouse. I think that’s another thing we should focus on – not only your own people but also the temp agencies that work in your warehouse.”
Looking at other incentives, Wojtanka believes we should be incentivising people for their performance and not just for their skills, “which is probably missing” from the current default approach towards staff at the moment. But Wallace highlighted that it’s not always easy to be so flexible around pay agreements because for some employers it involves collective agreements through unions.
Hughes said pay and conditions were one aspect, “and because of the rising inflation and cost increases, people are focusing a more right now on the on the pay side. But some people just like to be recognised with a ‘thank you’. Others like to know they’ve got a career path, and if they continue they will be able to grow and develop and learn new skills. There are a whole suite of different options to recognise, reward, and incentivise our workforce. I don’t think one size fits all.”
Palkar agreed that different people are motivated by different things – for example, some may want flexibility around time off – calling for “research to find out what people want”.
Szakal said that if people are only solely motivated by pay, they are probably not the right people. Instead, if you allow people some sort of flexibility, where that is possible within what may be a 24-7 operations environment, “and understand what is important to them – the one-size approach really does not work any more. If you’re more agile about what you can provide, that can sometimes be more important than a wage rise.”
He also says “micro promotions” can be important – “something that shows (employees) that they’re on a path and that good things can happen”. He also highlighted the importance of “stay interviews, not just exit interviews – so that you really understand and then measure the temperature on a daily basis. I think that’s missing in most organisations.”
Clarity of expectations
Notter suggested there is a danger of throwing out important elements of the industry’s work culture in a rush to meet changing expectations, and that some expectations now among staff have become “unrealistic”, creating “a nightmare to manage” for employers, who he believes should be able to expect some old-fashioned discipline from staff.
Stuart Maddocks, CEO of personnel and training specialists Calibrate, noted that in the challenge managers face to motivate and retain staff, “what we are really talking about is job satisfaction – whether somebody’s connected to the role they do, and motivated to perform as best they can.”
Regarding discipline, he said “one of the things I see a lot of employees really wanting from organisations is clarity of expectations – so they know whether they’re doing a good job or not”. But managers are often “so overworked and overlaid with administrative functions” that “being able to be clear on expectations is sometimes missed out. And often managers only interact with employees when they have dropped the ball, so it becomes more about maintenance and control rather than inspiring and galvanising talent.
He added: “So, we don’t necessarily get as much time in management and coaching roles, to do some of the important aspects of leadership. I think the starting point often is clear demonstration of what minimum expectations are and how to do a good job – what a good job looks like. And managers need to be able to have the time to coach them against their expectations.”
“No one turns up to work wanting to not do a good job, but they need to know what good looks like. But how do we as managers free up time to do that? That is a challenge.”
Lothar Moehle from Cargo iQ observed “what is often lacking in managers is honesty”, urging people “not to overpromise” to their staff. He also observed that HR departments are overloaded at the moment, looking for new staff, whereas it is far more rewarding for them to spend time retaining their staff.
Szakal agreed that HR should be taking care of staff, getting them to stay, but they have ended up with the role of talent access – which is a different and difficult thing.
Hughes pushed back against a suggestion by one speaker that part of the problem is an oversensitive, “snowflake” tendency among some young people in the workplace. Based on his own experience of that generation, he observed that “they work very hard, but they want to work on things they’re interested in”, and “they are interested in different things.
“We have to recognise that the next generation are influenced much more by technology, social media, the globalisation of their networks and the way that they interact.”
He also highlighted the importance of recognising cognitive diversity, noting: “Because the world is different, we also need to think differently, to evolve. We can’t expect that next generation to fit into our square pegs and round holes.”
Gamification in training
One suggestion to engage young people is use of ‘gamification’, for example in training, and Hughes agreed this is something employers need to adapt to.
Szakal commented: “Not only in training, but also in recruitment, we are seeing gamification, especially at the graduate and junior level, that works.”
Another speaker highlighted examples where some people had lost their jobs because they were addicted to their phones, although Szakal said this was “mainly on the more junior level”.
One participant observed: “People who are having fun will stay, because they will be getting something that they don’t get elsewhere.”
Another delegate from a specialist training organisation observed that the focus in aviation had too often been on “over-management and not leadership”, adding: “How often do we knock the passion out of people, because of management practice? Because we don’t link into our own company culture, things like our own company values, how many people actually understand what they are, and how they’re actually lived – so we have a sense of belonging?”
He added: “The reason people say they want more salary is because it is the only thing they understand as a reward, as opposed to recognition – things that cost nothing; to say, ‘thank you’ and give people reasons why they’re doing things well.”
However, Stan Wraight, president and CEO of consultancy SASI, observed that although it’s nice to hear about these motivation initiatives, there are sometimes more fundamental reasons why staff turnover is so high in some organisations, or they find it very difficult to recruit, highlighting a recent example where people were leaving jobs at a GHA in the US “because they were paid less than unemployment insurance. One of the things we found in working with GHAs is that people had to have two or three jobs.
“So, don’t blame Millennials. There are some basic fundamentals that are wrong when companies are paying less than unemployment insurance.” But he said there were examples of good practice as well.
Bringing the discussions towards a conclusion, Notter asked panellists “what does it take to be best in class, and to overcome these problems? If you had a magic wand, what would you do?”
Palkar stressed the need to examine what to do differently to attract more women – for example, using the word ‘creative’ in job advertisements increases the number of women that apply.
Szakal said the role of mentorship was critical. “Someone that has had a career path that they can aspire to; or a sponsor, which is someone that really promotes (a more junior individual). Very few organisations, especially in this sector, have a structured way of really pushing minorities, people of colour, different genders, different ages, into position for leadership roles. That’s one area that needs attention.”
Wojtanka observed: “Diversity is very important here. We are talking about a changing workforce, and it’s not only about gender, but also different generations, joining companies with different expectations. So, to be best in class, it’s for us to ensure that we are ready for that and we are open to experience the new different type of staff that we are, and we will be, employing.
“And we also change our processes to accommodate it; we cannot have one single process for everyone. We have people with different expectations, like wanting to work on different types of contracts. So, we have to be more flexible. And that’s how we can succeed.”
Hughes commented: “I’d like this industry to become an employer of choice for not just the next generation, but all generations. We do need to have a much more diverse workforce. And we don’t need to hear examples of people leaving to get unemployment benefit, because it pays more. We need to be considered a leading employer, because of the value that we bring to society; that the employee workforce is highly engaged, highly motivated, inspired, and see that they can build a career here. And it’s not just a job; it’s a vocation, and a vocation with value.”
He continued: “We don’t want to be in a position where we have organisations with 100% attrition rates over the course of a year, because people are just looking at it as if ‘it’s okay for now, but I’m going to get a job in Starbucks when it opens up’.
“So, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Wallace concluded: “I’m still going to look at new hires in terms of fit and capabilities, and make sure I’m not pressured to bring in somebody just because I need to meet the numbers and fill a box. Cargo is built on a backbone of strong relationships. Fit is really important to an organisation, and I don’t want to bring in people that might not be with me past six months, or be interested past a year.
“There’s lots of work to be done, and this is going to be a slow journey to correct.”