Hire and Hire
By Richard Rowe
Recruitment in the ground support industry is tough at the best of times, but today’s tight labor market means that organizations are having to be even more creative than ever, as Richard Rowe discovers.
By and large the global economy is booming, but all is not well in the offices of human resource directors in the ground support industry. The struggle is with the wage pressures and stiff competition for jobs that come with low unemployment.
Recruiting and then retaining good employees in the more bread and butter positions in the bag room and out on the ramp is particularly difficult. People, bags, cargo and mail have to be loaded and unloaded, safely and efficiently. It can be a dirty job, and it’s not for everyone, particularly when the pay scale for new entrants is comparable with what’s on offer at fast food restaurants and retail stores.
The choice for some is no choice at all. Work indoors from 9-5 in a comfortable retail store where you don’t get yelled at, versus aviation’s hard, physical labor, shift work, and all-weather operation.
Curiously, ground staff rub shoulders with millions of dollars of equipment every day. They operate in a risky environment, and are indirectly responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers. Charged with so much, they are paid so relatively little.
But if a new hire position pays the same as burger flipping, how can someone be persuaded that airport life is more of a meaningful challenge? After all, turning an aircraft is a little different to putting a pizza in the oven.
Airlines and ground handlers lament that not long ago they could attract a good proportion of college graduates to the ramp, but far fewer recruits today are college graduates. A college degree, of course, is not a prerequisite, but a pattern has formed. Some airlines even whisper that the caliber of people they are able to attract, both in customer service and on the ramp, has dropped.
Different organizations have different recruitment needs. An airline operator with a strong home base will need to reach into that community to attract employees. An expansionist ground handler will have to fathom how best to populate its expanding operations, and whether to do it centrally or locally. Whatever the need, there is now a greater incentive to be more creative in terms of attracting and then retaining a solid base of employees.
It is about bringing in a caliber of employee that blends with the existing workforce. A group of individuals that can develop together and move forward into positions of greater responsibility.
"Everyone must have a vested interest in terms of the training and retention of employees and what’s going on in the industry," believes John Kinney, Hub 2000 Workforce Development Manager, United Parcel Service (UPS).
In the past, UPS was in a similar position to other organizations trying to attract workers. The only difference is that the carrier has pulled out all the stops to rectify the situation back at its home base in Louisville, Kentucky.
Not long ago, UPS had a tenuous grip on its workforce. Turnover was horrendous, and the demand for employees was far outstripping labor supply in Louisville. Similar to Federal Express at its Memphis base, UPS had a very large employee base in the area and subsequently a dramatic affect on local wages. Back then it was around $8 an hour--about the same as McDonalds.
"We expected to attract a lot of students," says Kinney. "We wanted to bring them in because it would give us a pool of available workers that could eventually become full time UPS workers, but also because a part time job fitted in well with a student’s schedule.
"However, the demographics at the time in Louisville put us in a very bad position. We were non-competitive. We could not attract students and were not the employer of choice. So we had to change a few things."
And change, UPS certainly did. In 1996, UPS began the experimental approach of targeting local high schools to attract students to a life on the ramp (the so-called School to Work program). UPS started with 40 students in what was a very small program--small potatoes given that the company employs about 10,000 at its Louisville hub.
The experiment was incredibly successful. From the original 40 high school students brought in, the retention rate was over 90%. "This was pretty high considering our turnover rate was approaching 100%," points out Kinney.
So, what was the big attraction for the high school students? "We did it by having students come and work for us and we would give them a three credit course [up to nine credits] at a local community college," explains Kinney. All the students had to do was commit to a year long program, and work three to four hours a day on a Monday-Friday or Sunday-Thursday schedule.
The program has moved forward to the point where UPS now has more than 400 part time "employees" who are still in high school. They come to work everyday and in the afternoon take the credit course.
And UPS didn’t stop there. The concept was expanded so that a student could work through both high school and college, and ultimately be provided with a career opportunity. The idea was discussed at length within UPS. The question of what it would cost the company to go down such a road was weighed up carefully with what it would cost the company not to.
Once the value was justified, UPS added a second layer to the School for Work program by creating the Metropolitan College, a consortium of three local schools: the University of Louisville, Jefferson Technical School, and Jefferson Community College.
Students could join the School to Work program as a high school senior (17/18 years old), earn college credits and gain work experience while completing a high school degree. That student/employee could then enroll in the Metropolitan College (or the recent Earn and Learn scheme) program to help pay for college.
Upon completion of the college degree, UPS helps that employee find a job either at UPS or in their chosen career field.
"We are looking for those interested in finding work at UPS in conjunction with their academic role," explains Kinney. Today, the company has more than 2,000 students working for UPS who attend Metropolitan College through one of the three institutions.
"It’s a financially sound decision for a student to come and work for us," says Kinney, although he concedes such an approach is not for every organization. "You have to look at how far you want to go into a program like this.
"As far as UPS was concerned we went very deep. But you turn around and look at the tremendous payback--employee loyalty, desire, and ability to learn. This program has since become the nucleus of the Louisville workforce."
The issues, as Kinney sees it, are threefold. It’s about improving, retaining, and developing the skills of employees. "You can never employ on a full time basis all the students who are going to graduate from Metropolitan College, but you can take those employees who have elected to major in the field that you are hiring for full time."
UPS has felled several birds with one stone. "We now have the ability to satisfy the needs of the student, the needs of the community, and it is good marketing. We have brought in over 500 students from throughout Kentucky that have relocated to Louisville. This is all at much less cost than if we had stayed the same."
The School to Learn, Metropolitan College and Earn and Learn have gone a long way towards easing the recruitment and retention problems of the company. Since its inception in 1996, School to Work enrollment has grown from 40 students to the 375 who graduated in the class of 2000.
Similarly, Metropolitan College enrollment has tripled in size to more than 2,000 students since it began in 1998. Meanwhile, Earn and Learn, a national program still in its first year, now boasts 268 people in Louisville.
Clearly, this kind of community participation is not for everyone. What about airlines with several large stations, and even expanding ground handlers who are constantly opening up new ones?
Take VAS for instance, the 100% subsidiary of Frankfurt Airport that took up its ground handling license at Austria’s Vienna Airport in August 2000. VAS has already made its mark, securing Alitalia as its first customer followed by Air France, Buzz (the low cost airline from KLM) and German charter, Aero Lloyd.
The establishment of the company’s Vienna operation offers an insight into how such increasingly international organizations like Frankfurt Airport tackle recruitment overseas. Jumping from one European Union (E.U.) country to the next is not as straightforward as some non-Europeans might imagine.
"When we started in Vienna we were warned that it would be very difficult to recruit ramp staff," Station Manager, Esther Abel, told GSE Today. "Unemployment in the Vienna area is very low."
Nevertheless advertising in local newspapers attracted almost 300 applicants for ramp positions. Most had no experience of the ramp environment, and Abel and her team spent a great deal of time interviewing for just 20 ramp positions.
"Many of the people interested in the job were too old, could not speak German very well, or were just not interested in hard work," explains Abel. Others failed the company’s physical examination prior to employment.
Out of the 20 staff originally employed back in September 2000, 19 remain with VAS. Many others have since applied for positions with VAS, including employees from other entities working at the airport.
Labor contracts mean that VAS is tied to the same wage scale as Vienna Airport ground handling staff, the other incumbent handler (and one time monopolist). Entry level staff receive a fairly low wage. According to Abel, the initial salary for a loader is about EUR 1345, although there are, of course, annual increases.
VAS is unable to offer additional benefits to attract staff because of the strict labor policies at Vienna Airport. "There are plenty of people who would like to work at the airport but never have a chance," laments Abel. The benefits on offer from VAS take the form of multi-functional jobs with good career opportunities, rather than bumper salaries. VAS needs to remain competitive and can not afford to start passing on high salary costs to customer airlines.
Although most of the company’s staff came in with little or no airport experience, advancement is rapid. "They can become a head loader or drive a high loader or pushback truck within a short time which also includes better salaries," explains Abel. "We have already appointed six load masters and they only started to work in ground handling in September. The start up ramp team received a lot of training at the beginning and some of them even started as pushback drivers."
This is very different to life at Frankfurt where it can take, maybe, 15 years to become a pushback driver because there are so many people vying for the position. "At VAS, all ramp staff is multifunctional and everyone is able to work in the baggage hall one day and operate a high loader the next.
"If you have a small team you have to give the staff more responsibilities and I think they like that."
Training for VAS staff was shared between Vienna and Frankfurt. "Part of the practical training is performed at Frankfurt, for instance, on the job training for equipment handling such as pushback and the use of high loaders."
VAS management was sourced from Frankfurt. This included Abel, as Station Manager, and an Operational Manager. The rest of the VAS staff was employed locally without major input from Frankfurt.
Finding people of management caliber from Frankfurt was not easy, says Abel. Many people do not want to move overseas because of family commitments. "I volunteered and got the job," she says.
Frankfurt has worked on developing a pool of people for international assignments for several years and now has an operational support pool. The pool consists of operational staff from all of the different service sections of Frankfurt ground handling who can be sent as trainers to locations abroad. Several trainers from the pool went to Vienna to qualify the staff, which proved a huge success.
Frankfurt supported VAS for the initial hiring of staff with personnel department representatives making the journey to support in interviewing, but now VAS is left to its own devices. "As labor law is very different in Austria, we can’t rely too much on Frankfurt."
For her part, Abel has no regrets about moving to Vienna. "Working at an outstation gives you more responsibility, freedom and flexibility. It is a very challenging job to build up a new station and to start with nothing."
Abel enjoys the independence and the speed of decision making inherent in such a small team. "I have never had such an overview on so many different management functions before," she adds, clearly relishing the challenge.
Faced with very different recruitment issues, both VAS and UPS have tackled them with some gusto.