Why do some recently qualified commercial pilots seemingly walk straight into airline jobs while others struggle to even get an airline interview? What are the factors that affect airline pilot employability, and can a trainee pilot influence those employability factors? These are questions that play on the minds of those who are training towards their Commercial Pilot’s Licence or those that are considering investing large sums of money in Professional Flight Training.
The good news is that a candidate can have significant influence over their employability. There are some factors that are beyond the control of the candidate but a good understanding of all factors should lead to an ability to manage employability.
The model below is from a thesis submitted by the author for the award of an MSc in Air Transport Management. The research leading to the establishment of the model included interviews with airline and ATO personnel as well as a wide survey of qualified pilots, trainee pilots and those considering professional flight training. Employability models and literature from wide ranging sources influenced the model. The model was presented at the September 2017 Royal Aeronautical Society Pilot Training Conference in London. The text is a direct excerpt from the thesis.
The model is proposed as an explanation of factors affecting pilot employability. The model draws on the evidence previously presented in the literature review and survey findings. It provides a useful framework for considering how a candidate can maximise their employability, as well as examining strategies to maximise the efficient flow of suitable candidates through flight training. The model is briefly explained below, with a more thorough explanation of each element following.
The model starts in the pre-training phase, with the individual’s personal background and characteristics, as some of these factors will ultimately affect their employability. Barriers to entry to training are passed to enable the candidate to enter the transformation phase. The next stage involves essential factors (the acquisition of key skills and knowledge), as well as desirable factors (including the development of generic skills, the building of experience and the building of human and social capital). Barriers to employment must then be overcome, enabling entry into the employment phase, either to a long-term job, or a short-term job that allows the development of experience with the intention of moving to a subsequent long-term job. The movement through the barriers to employment is affected by prevailing demand.
Pre Training Phase
Personal background and characteristics encompass several elements and are considered to be in the pre-training phase. These include, but are not limited to, the elements discussed below.
Personality was cited by a large number of survey respondents as being a significant factor regarding pilot employability. The literature reinforces this. King (2014) and Ganesh and Joseph (2005) found links between personality and training outcomes. While personality is not fixed and can change over time, changes to personality are not trainable by an ATO and therefore personality is considered prior to the commencement of training.
Educational background is considered prior to the commencement of training. The survey evidence suggests that those with an aviation related 3rd level qualification gain an advantage over those with non-aviation related 3rd level qualifications. Educational background may indicate an ability (or potentially a difficulty) to cope with the demands of a professional flight-training course.
Experience prior to commencing a course is important as prospective students may have had the opportunity to become involved in leadership and teamwork roles, which could ultimately increase their employability. Previous work or educational experiences may have led to the development of generic skills that enhance employability. Competency based interviews are reported to be in widespread use by airlines and candidates should take advantage of all opportunities to engage in experiences which develop and demonstrate relevant competencies.
Financial background will strongly influence the ability of the prospective student to raise the significant finances required for a professional flight-training course. Financial considerations may dictate the type of course completed or ATO attended.
Barriers to entry to professional flight training
Prospective students must overcome several barriers to enter training.
Factors affecting the wider environment, for example PESTLE factors, are beyond the control of the perspective student and may influence the significance of the other barriers to entry. The wider economic situation in particular will modulate the significance of the financial barrier discussed below.
The financial barriers are significant but may be overcome through savings or borrowing. Borrowing maybe from family members or a financial institution.
Although it may be possible to commence training prior to passing an aviation Class 1 medical this is inadvisable. Medical certification is considered a barrier to entry. It is possible that a perspective student may not be able to overcome this barrier.
ATO choice and acceptance are considered a barrier to entry. The choice of course and ATO will be influenced by personal and financial factors, but the evidence shows that these choices will have a significant effect on employability, with integrated graduates seeming to have an advantage. From a wider perspective, ATO selection tests have been shown to be inadequate. Choosing an ATO with poor or no selection tests may circumvent this barrier.
The transformation phase is considered to be from the commencement of a professional flight-training course until professional qualification, and considers both essential and desirable factors. This phase is one of shared responsibility between the individual and the ATO. The balance of responsibility will change depending on the choice of ATO, with the better ATOs providing assistance beyond the essential factors. It should be noted that the candidate has the ability to influence each of the elements of the transformation phase, either through the selection of an appropriate ATO, or through taking personal responsibility for their development.
Dacre Pool and Sewell (2007) identified “Degree Subject Knowledge, Understanding and Skills” as being of primary importance in their “Key to Employability,” and the model reflects the core licensing requirements as such.
Key Skill and Knowledge Development is the essential element of the transformation period and for the purposes of the model is considered of primary importance during the transformational phase. It is considered that this element includes the ground-based training that leads to the EASA written exams and the flight training that prepares a student for the National Aviation Authority CPL and IR flight tests. Without reaching the standards set by the appropriate National Aviation Authority, a candidate will not be granted a license and therefore is unemployable in a professional flying role. The completion of a Multi Crew Co-operation (MCC) course is also required to allow the graduate to operate in a two-crew environment, and in this context is included here. Performance in the written exams and flight tests is believed to affect the employability of a qualified pilot.
While the essential factors are of primary importance during the transformational phase, other desirable factors are also important. These factors are those that allow the student to harness all available resources to enhance their employability and differentiate themselves from those with whom they will compete for employment. A strong position in these areas should lead to increased levels of self-confidence, and consequently self-esteem. Self-esteem is recognised by Dacre Pool and Sewell (2007) as being an important element of the “Key to Employability.” The desirable factors include, but are not limited to, those discussed below.
Networking is considered important during the transformation phase. The literature suggests the importance of developing “social and human capital,” (Fugate et al, 2004), and the survey responses emphasise this point with “contacts” being cited as being of high importance. Attending an ATO that has proven airline contacts may enhance networking, but candidates must take on a level of responsibility for this element themselves and make the most of any opportunities to forge relationships with industry contacts.
Acquisition of Job Seeking Skills is evidently an important factor during the transformation period. ATO HoTs rate this element very highly, yet many ATOs do not provide any training in it. Interview coaching, CV coaching and group exercise coaching are important. Aptitude test coaching is of questionable benefit although there is a perceived need for it amongst job seekers. The attendance of a specific selections skills course that encompasses all of these elements appears to be beneficial.
The literature suggests that the development of Generic Skills enhances employability and it is argued that educational institutions should assist their students in this area. Due to the intensity of a professional flight training course there is, perhaps understandably, a lack of specific focus in this area. That said, generic skills should be developed by the very nature of flight training. Candidates should take on personal responsibility for ensuring that their non-aviation specific skills are kept sharp.
Mentoring is strongly supported as a concept to enhance pilot employability. Several ATOs reported taking an active role in this area, but for those that do not, students would be well advised to seek out a mentor themselves. Both airline and ATO personnel, warning of the importance of finding a suitable mentor, sound a cautionary note here. This is perhaps an area where the industry could step in to set up a programme to facilitate mentoring of new entrants.
It was suggested previously that experience prior to the commencement of flight training is important. For the duration of the course there is the opportunity to further develop one’s experiences. Experiences during flight training, which may provide the development of, and evidence of, appropriate competencies may be particularly important. The opportunities for relevant experiences may vary depending on the ATO, and particularly whether or not the course is residential.
Evidence has been presented that Emotional Intelligence is of increasing importance. There is no doubt that an individual has certain EQ prior to training and that could be considered under personal background. However EQ is considered to be part of the desirable factors as the evidence suggests that educational institutes can have a positive impact on a student’s EQ.
A significant factor in pilot employability is the prevailing demand in the market. Those qualifying in the midst of an economic downturn face a much tougher jobs market than those who qualify in a buoyant economy. The duration of a professional flight-training course is at least 14 months, and potentially much longer depending on the type of course chosen. This means that a candidate is unlikely to be able to predict the prevailing economic conditions prior to commencing his or her training, and therefore the demand filter is placed prior to the barriers to employment being addressed.
The model depicts the demand filter between the desirable elements of the transformation phase and the barriers to employment. The development of knowledge and skill leading to the successful passing of the requisite exams and flight tests will always be essential, regardless of demand. The importance to employability of the desirable factors of the transformation phase are likely to be reduced in times of high demand for qualified, albeit inexperienced, pilots. Conversely, in times of lower demand the desirable factors of the transformation phase take on higher importance. Market demand is beyond the control of the candidate.
Barriers to Employment
There are numerous potential barriers to employment for newly qualified pilots. Some barriers can be mitigated through personal management of the transformation phase, but some are beyond the control of the candidate. It would be prudent for a prospective student to examine the potential barriers to employment and consider their significance prior to commencing training. The evidence suggests that some qualified pilots do not find a job and this may be an indication of a lack of awareness of the barriers to employability.
The barriers to entry to training are less than the barriers to employment. This means that it is possible for individuals to enter the industry when they may be unsuitable to hold a position as a professional pilot. When possible the barriers to employment should be addressed in advance, prior to investing significant finance in flight training. This may mean an acceptance on a potential student’s behalf that they should not commence flight training if the barriers to employment are likely to be insurmountable in their case.
A potential solution to this problem would be to bring the barriers to employment forward and address them prior to the commencement of training. This could be achieved through airline involvement in the ATO selection process. A robust screening process involving all stakeholders would give confidence to a candidate and comfort to the provider of finance, be that a financial institution or a family member. Such a solution may open professional flight training to an increased number of potential students if financial institutions had a high level of confidence in the selection process.
The external environmental factors that represent a barrier to training also represent a barrier to employment. The external environment is beyond the control of the candidate and external shocks may have a detrimental effect on the jobs market at a given time.
Airline selection must be passed prior to employment. Strong Job Seeking Skills will assist in this element, and students would be well advised to seek out specific training in this area. It should be recognised that passing ATO selection tests does not in itself indicate an ability to pass airline selection tests. Attending a screening programme, such as run by GAPAN, prior to investing in flight training is advisable to mitigate this barrier.
Financial constraints represent a barrier to entry but may also represent a barrier to employment. The prevalence of self-funding of type ratings is very high and therefore those that have not got the funds to finance further training are disadvantaged over those that do.
Personal circumstances may dictate that a candidate needs to be based in a particular location. Those that have the ability to be flexible in this regard may be better positioned to find employment. Survey respondents rated this factor as particularly important.
A lack of motivation can be a barrier to employment. Motivation during training is important but this motivation must also follow through into the job search phase. Candidates must be prepared to actively seek out opportunities and be motivated to continuously align themselves to a market orientated position.
A lack of industry awareness is considered a barrier. This barrier is entirely within the control of the candidate and through on-going research can be mitigated.
The survey findings suggest that age plays an important role in employability, with older candidates appearing to be disadvantaged in the search for employment. Age does not represent a barrier to entry (with the exception of meeting minimum legal age requirements) so prospective students would be well advised to consider this important barrier to employment before commencing training. While age cannot be changed it is a completely predictable quantity.
The research suggests that, in the wider context, the traditional career path is changing with an increased number of transitions being experienced during a working lifetime. Evidence of this trend is present in the survey findings with a significant number of employed pilots intending on moving jobs within the next five years.
The model envisages pilots seeking a position in which they are satisfied to stay in the long-term. Some may be fortunate enough to find this job immediately after qualification, while others may take a job in the short-term with the intention of building experience and subsequently moving to their desired position. It is recognised that the level of satisfaction may change over time and a position that is in the first instance satisfactory may become less so over time