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Emma Robinson considers some of the challenges the industry will have to address in order to motivate new talent to enter the airport sector.

Iam sure most airport bosses will agree, 2020-22 has been the most difficult period the aviation industry has ever faced, with the travel disruption of summer 2022 primarily mainly due to staff shortages.

Granted, the bulk of the lost workforce was unavoidable, due to the state of the world. Tough business conditions led to difficult choices, but a big slip-up was cutting staff rather than taking advantage of furlough schemes.

Employees who were on the minimum wage left the industry, got a job elsewhere, and realised they were better off. They might still have a lack of job satisfaction in their new role, but more than likely, they now work more social hours and have a better work-life balance.

People don’t want to commute like they used to, meaning that if a job can’t be done remotely, there is now a limited pool of people who live in the area that may be suitable.

Rising costs and pressures on margins are exacerbating the problem. You can’t necessarily afford to pay people more – a solution which would attract better candidates. You also have a high level of middle management burnout, due to pressures from senior leadership teams and junior team members, which can feed into a stressful environment.

Some of the progress is out of the industry’s hands, but the sad fact of the matter is that the industry in general has a culture problem.

Leadership is incredibly important for the culture of a business, from the way you speak to and trust staff, to their working environment – staff need to feel inspired when they come to work.

There needs to be a radical shift in thinking. The best talent is up to eight times more productive than an average worker. Offering a higher basic salary will help to attract those from an industry where they are used to working hard, such as manufacturing or waste management, and incentivise them further with bonus structures based on performance.

For someone working in baggage handling this may be the number of pieces of luggage handled in an hour, whilst in retail it could be sales per head. This goes hand-in-hand with the need for investment in better tech, facilitating the smart tracking of KPIs without intrusion.

But people are not just driven by money. They are also driven by autonomy, opportunity, and learning. People want some form of control over when they work. They may want to work four days rather than five, so they can look after their children.

This type of thinking has been lost on an industry which, to date, has mostly been bound by inflexible working arrangements.

People also want to learn new things. Training doesn’t have to be done in the same way it has always been done. It can be exciting, and it can be tailored to the demographic it needs to attract. Cross-functional training and learning from other departments is motivating for people.

Another factor is purpose. People like to know that what they’re doing contributes to a higher purpose. If they understand and believe in it, they can get behind it.

The industry must also convince talented young people – i.e. Generation Z – that there are opportunities for lifetime careers within the airport sector.

Degree apprenticeships are a perfect opportunity to attract the young leaders of the future, and these are people of a generation that don’t want to be saddled with university debt.

But there needs to be a strong and clear message to people entering the industry; you really can make it all the way to the top, and you can have fun whilst you’re doing it.

About the author

Emma Robinson is founder of Red Diamond Executive, a specialist in headhunting for the aviation sector.

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