Recruiting the next employee
Good things can be said for going outside an airport to find new blood to inject into management-level ranks.
November 30, 2009 By Carroll McCormick
Good things can be said for going outside an airport to find new blood to inject into management-level ranks. However, plans that promote the development and upward movement of staff inside airports can inoculate airports from the disruption that can occur when upper management staff leave.
Parm Sidhu, for example, has only the airport manager above him and no one below him who can step into his shoes. As the manager of operations and facilities at the Abbotsford International Airport, he is concerned. “There are 20 staff and me. There is no one in between. If I leave now, the airport will be in serious trouble.” Poaching Sidhu’s replacement, or anyone else’s, for that matter, is a shaky strategy. A couple of years ago, Abbotsford posted an airfield supervisor job and did not get a single applicant. More recently, he says, “We did a Canada-wide search for a duty officer position for regulatory affairs and couldn’t find anyone with the relevant five years’ work experience and the right education. So we chose a university-educated person with little hands-on airport experience.”
|FROM LEFT: Coleen Rogers, vice-president operations, YVRAS, and Lori Chambers, senior director of airports, YVRAS, in the Nassau airport terminal.
Putting someone with no experience into an operations management position at Abbotsford would not work, Sidhu says. “A big airport can bring in someone green who can learn from others. But if I left, Abbotsford could not bring in a green person to replace me.” To protect against the turmoil that would result if Sidhu were to leave without a trained replacement available immediately to take his place, the airport has decided to create a succession program with enough depth to replace senior staff with those below them. “We are in the midst of hiring two more duty officers, and eventually I would like to hire a second manager within my department. This would give us two managers, three duty officers and 20 staff in operations,” Sidhu explains.
This summer Cranbrook’s Canadian Rockies International Airport lost its managing director, Phillip Elchitz, to the Kelowna International Airport. Todd Tripp, who happens to be the managing director of the North Peace Regional Airport in Fort St. John, replaced him as interim managing director. Tripp will wear two hats until Vancouver Airport Services (YVRAS), which runs these and 16 other airports in Canada and abroad, selects Elchitz’s replacement. Fortunately, YVRAS has a depth of employee talent that will make the task easier than it would be for a small airport flying solo. “We are constantly talking about who is ready to move on,” says Lori Chambers, senior director of airports, YVRAS. Of course, as YVRAS skims off its own to place elsewhere, new talent has to be fed in from below, or obtained by poaching.
YVRAS recruits some of its staff from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), located near its offices. Its airport operations program has benefited from the expertise and counsel of YVRAS and its parent company – the Vancouver International Airport. (Vancouver Airport Services is jointly owned by Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR) and Citi Infrastructure Investors (CII)).
|Cynthia Ewanchyna, senior director, human resources, Calgary Airport Authority.
“There is a huge gap between the managing director of an airport and the office or field staff. What we have done in British Columbia to bridge that gap is to hire BCIT graduates into positions,” says Coleen Rogers, vice-president operations, YVRAS. “Lori and I have taken turns on the BCIT advisory panel and picked people we see being able to fit into our airport system.”
Sidhu is concerned that poaching is symptomatic of a static, and ultimately shrinking pool of skilled management-level people at Canadian airports. Rogers offers another, although not mutually exclusive, view, using the Elchitz event as an example: “I do a lot of poaching. I see it as a positive thing, an opportunity. We were recently poached and I could not be prouder.” Rogers adds, “Phillip is a great guy. For his development he needed to be working next at a bigger airport. We had our eyes open for an opportunity like that in our network, but didn’t have one. Kelowna hired him as airside director. He is at a bigger airport, in a community that understands the value of an airport. In five or six years he will have the experience for us to hire him back.”
At the Calgary Airport Authority, Cynthia Ewanchyna, senior director, human resources, weighs in: “We have had employees come here from other airports – because they want to obtain experience at a larger airport. People who are keen on that career path are looking for a greater experience.” Ewanchyna continues, “When we lose people, we lose them to large facilities, such as educational institutes or other big airports. But this is rare, as Calgary is the fourth-largest airport in Canada. While people might consider going to an even larger airport, generally the higher cost of living [where these larger airports are] makes it unappealing.”
|Victoria International Airport CEO Richard Paquette.
The pain of moving to higher-cost towns strikes a nerve with Victoria International Airport CEO Richard Paquette. He has poached, but would rather fill jobs internally. Both scenarios have their challenges. “I’ve recruited a couple of people from other airports, but I cannot rely on poaching. Victoria is a high-cost city. It can be a challenge for a person’s spouse to find the right job.” Paquette also notes that people are not as inclined to pull up stakes and move around as much as they used to. His advice: “We have come to the reality that we have to do the development from within. But if you don’t have a high turnover, it is easy to ignore [the problem of succession] and it can hit you between the eyes.”
Three top positions at Victoria, not counting Paquette’s, which he has held since 1998, are the managers of operations, terminal operations and emergency planning. For two of the positions there are candidates in those departments who could move up to fill them. As for the third position, says Paquette, “I have to figure out how to find the right person and create a development position. Succession planning is a real challenge.” In theory, Paquette says, “You have to look at all your positions and ask where you are going to get replacements for all of them. Look one level below and see who is there.” But one fly in that ointment at Victoria is that a move up can mean moving from a union job into a salaried position. Just below the managers of all three positions, for example, [staff] would be promoted from union to non-union positions.
|Parm Sidhu is manager of operations and facilities at the Abbotsford International Airport.
Paquette has managed such moves, however. “I promoted my airfield electrical supervisor to manager of planning and development. It was a bit of a challenge for him to make that move from a union and technical environment to a managerial environment. I targeted him for that position years ago, encouraged him, and it turned out right.” Paquette takes this train of thought further: “For us it is a little bizarre. On the operations side we have firefighters. We look for people with firefighting background. We look for volunteer firefighters in our community. We don’t look for people with university degrees. We recruited a journeyman electrician who is knowledgeable and has a good work ethic. Both can advance and ultimately become managers. But this is a bit of a challenge, because [in their union positions] they are eligible for overtime and shift arrangements that are in some ways better than a nine to five job.”
He also cautions, “Equipment operators and mechanics can develop into field supervisors. But a great supervisor might not make a good manager.” Some positions are just plain tough to fill internally. “If you conclude that you need an executive with a Certified General Accountants degree, you may have to recruit from outside,” Paquette says. In general though, he suggests, “If a small airport makes its entry-level recruitment right, they can develop and grow people.”
The future of airports will be secured by new generations of employees. Paquette, Rogers and Chambers are enthusiastic supporters of airports as places with career opportunities aplenty. “Airports are just wonderful places to work. The problem is getting in the door. Most entry-level positions at small airports are technical: electrical, equipment operators, firefighters. The people who advance are the ones who are enthusiastic,” Paquette says, while counselling patience and a little humility. “You can’t look at a small airport and say, ‘I have a Master of Business Administration, a Bachelor of Arts’ and expect to run the place. There are a lot of technical and operational things to learn.” Rogers adds, “It is a good time for young people to get into the business. Customer service, operations, business finance, retail. Any of the bigger Canadian airports offer career paths in any speciality you are interested in.”
As for an operation like YVRAS, Chambers explains, “When we recruit, it is a totally different experience from a single airport: even when we hire for a single airport, we’re thinking about future opportunities in the network, in Canada and internationally. There are no guarantees that there will be something available exactly when you’re ready: you have to be adventurous, a risk-taker and confident in your ability. When you get in and improve yourself, the opportunities will come."
|A CAREER IN AIRPORTS
Help prepare Canada’s airports for tomorrow
Canada’s airports are vital engines of economic growth for the communities they serve. As a generation of government-trained workers nears retirement, there exist tremendous opportunities for motivated workers to join the airports sector.
Consider one of the college and university programs with aviation/airport programs available across Canada, including:
British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Transportation, Richmond, B.C.
Georgian College, Barrie, Ont.
University of Western Ontario Administrative & Commercial Studies, London, Ont.
Source: Canadian Airports Council, www.cacairports.ca