BlueSky: Think long-term when staffing up

In the face of rising costs, growing concerns about a shortage of pilots in the long-term and - more pressingly - a dearth of skilled engineering and operations staff, operators looking to capitalise on the recovering charter market have some tough nuts to crack on the staffing

We all know how difficult it is to find good people, and experience has taught most of us that there are no easy solutions to this challenge. Whereas freelance staff were once seen as a quick and potentially lower-cost answer to recruitment needs – or at least a Band Aid while the right permanent hires were sought – changes in the market mean that freelancers now come with their own caveats.

Traditionally, freelance crew were attractive because the employer saved on hefty employment benefits, such as a pension, sick leave, paid holidays and health insurance. Choosing a freelancer could also speed up your ability to grow, because hiring could theoretically be done quickly: with permanent recruits, you need to consider carefully if you’ve found the right candidate; with freelancers, it is easier to part company if you’ve made a hiring mistake. However, older hands in the charter sector recognise these attractions are largely illusory.

For example, the supposedly lower costs of freelance pilots are ratcheted up significantly when you factor in the training and checks that even these staff now require. Once you tot up the time requirements for operator proficiency checks, licence proficiency checks and so forth, there is suddenly a long time lag before a freelancer can start contributing to your profit. Moreover, training is a hefty investment for an operator and, while it can be viewed as a long-term investment with a permanent employee, when you invest in training a freelancer, you are enhancing the value of the individual, not your business.

Furthermore, if a crew member has more than one employer, you can never be entirely sure he or she will be available when needed. Paying freelancers a retainer is no guarantee in this respect, which is why the market has now migrated back to paying day rates. As operators frequently have limited visibility of customer demand or maintenance requirements, having to also contend with uncertain staff availability can create embarrassing headaches.

For service businesses such as ours, there is another reason to believe that those elusive permanent hires are the best way forward: our staff members are vital brand ambassadors.

It is no secret that the nature of our industry demands a special type of person, with qualities that are not essential in commercial airline personnel, whether they are pilots, engineers or cabin crew. When, for example, did an airline pilot last carry your bags for you, guide you through the safety procedures, or recommend boutique hotels at your destination? The art of being a successful business jet charter pilot is a rare combination of charm, discretion, tact and respect. The skills and qualifications required of a good Embraer Legacy engineer, or the organisational skill and finesse of a talented ops team member, are no easier to find.

Operators need to make sure their pilots, engineers and ops staff understand the ethos of the company they represent. If employers use freelancers, they need to be aware these people are effectively one step removed from the everyday operations of the company - with the knock-on effect that they may not commit to, nor, indeed, understand the company’s core values.

Therefore, as we consider the next 12 months and the strengthening demand we hope they will bring, this is the time for operators to take stock of their recruitment and retention policies. As recovery continues, it will only become harder to attract the really good people out there. So this is time to ask why they should work for you, as opposed to one of your competitors. And, once you have secured their services, how can you keep them motivated and loyal to their jobs, so the investment you make in them will give you a return?

We are a sociable industry, so there are many opportunities to compare notes with industry allies and even rivals. However, we should also look beyond our borders for possible inspiration from other industries. Operators to consider individually whether it is right to introduce, for example, ‘holiday purchase’ programmes or ‘duvet days’, and our slender industry margins of course reduce our room for manoeuvre in this regard.

However, we need to recognise that human resources is a responsibility that will consume an increasing share of management time in the years ahead, and success will demand flexibility and imagination.

Published in: BlueSky 29 August 2013

Published in: BlueSky 11 July 2013

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