The pandemic has employees rethinking their career priorities, which is making it harder for companies to hold onto workers.

Industry concerns about retaining talent in the pre-COVID world have only grown more problematic, as the pandemic has spurred many employees, including business aviation professionals, to reconsider their career goals. The industry also is feeling the effects of “The Great Resignation” – the widespread movement in which large numbers of people quit their jobs.

While high-skill aviation jobs haven’t been hit by pandemic-driven losses to the same degree as other industries, “employees looking around for other opportunities are finding they’re bountiful,” said Jad Donaldson, director of aviation for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

Of particular concern in business aviation is the lure of the airlines, many of which currently offer large signing bonuses and the promise of lengthy careers, as well as the potential for rapid advancement.

“Pilots [moving to the airlines from business aviation] believe they’re getting in on the ground floor right now of a hiring frenzy,” Donaldson said. “Despite the often-cyclical nature of the airline industry, pilots still believe they’ll be at the same airline for 20-30 years and then retire out. It’s difficult for business aviation to compete against that mindset, even if history shows airlines must often reorganize and furlough employees. The math doesn’t always work out as planned.”

For those more familiar with that history, however, such uncertainty can be to business aviation’s advantage. “Most company flight operations have staying power,” Donaldson said. “Our industry doesn’t often let down pilots.”

“The pandemic changed many people’s priorities. We need to look at those who may have left our industry and how we can get them back. We need to get creative. ”

GREG HAMELINK Chief of Maintenance and Ground Ops, Stryker Corp.

Work/Life Balance Key

While “grass is greener elsewhere” thinking will always play a role in workforce retention, with compensation among the top concerns, considerations beyond the office, hangar or flight deck often play a significant role in someone’s decision to stay or leave a job.

“People will stick with a job they don’t like if it works for their lifestyle,” said Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International. “Pilots, especially, are most concerned with the long-term benefits of their job. We can’t point and say, ‘this is where you’ll be at the end of your career’ in business aviation quite like airlines can.”

To combat that, Barden emphasized the importance of “selling the job” to the motivations of a given employee.

“We all have different priorities,” she said. “There are those who might be motivated solely by money, while another might be motivated by the ability to be home for her kid’s ballgame, and others may prioritize growth opportunities.”

Greg Hamelink, chief of maintenance and ground ops for Stryker Corp. and past chairman of the NBAA Maintenance Committee, noted business aviation can hold several advantages to those seeking a more favorable work/life balance. That includes schedule flexibility, the opportunity to travel with the aircraft and other lifestyle considerations “that the younger generation, in particular, is looking for.

“I also believe the maintenance side, in particular, holds unique appeal to many candidates,” he continued. “We work on all facets of the aircraft – airframe, avionics, engines, interfacing with technology and highly complex systems – rather than on a single system as you often see at the airlines. There’s an intrigue there that helps attract and keep people.”

That may be a more difficult ‘sell’ for pilots, however. “Airlines need someone to sit in the seat and move the plane where it needs to go, and they pay you pretty well to do it,” Donaldson noted. “That’s not business aviation, but it is the attitude and the pay scale we compete against. It’s apples to oranges, but we’re trying to pay apples to apples.”

Furthermore, as company flight operations, charter providers and other business aviation employers compete for talent, “we’re kind of fighting against ourselves as well,” added Donaldson.

Hamelink also recommended business aviation stakeholders compare information on wages not only within the industry, but “we should also probably take another look at how quickly the airline side is changing and adjust to remain competitive.”

It’s also no secret the business aviation workforce is aging, with retirements representing a significant portion of the personnel losses seen throughout the industry.

“We really need to work on retaining our current 30- and 40-year-olds,” Barden said. “My biggest concern is that, in 10 years, we won’t have any 40-year-old pilots working in business aviation.”

“Ours is an aging workforce,” agreed Hamelink. “The average age of an airframe and powerplant technician is 51, and 30% of them will be looking to retire in the near future. For every four AMTs [aviation maintenance technicians] leaving the industry, only three are coming in to fill their positions.”

“Without question, the pandemic will reverberate across our industry for years to come. Now, more than ever, people want greater predictability. ”

SHERYL BARDEN Cam, President and CEO, Aviation Personnel International

COVID Changing the Playing Field

Of course, adding to the crisis are the psychological effects from layoffs, global lockdowns and other aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which have all conspired to reshape how many employees view their job and its importance to their lives.

“Before COVID, I think we’d managed to improve as an industry to doing an average job in retaining talented workers, but that’s starting to slide off,” Donaldson said. “COVID has caused an incredible upheaval in our industry.

“We’re in a very tumultuous time; look at what’s changed just over the past 18-20 months,” he added. “I don’t know what this future looks like over the next one or two years, and I have no magic bullet answers.”

“I think we were doing a good job on retention prior to COVID,” agreed Hamelink. “The pandemic changed many people’s priorities. We need to look at those who may have left our industry and how we can get them back. We need to get creative.”

“Without question, the pandemic will reverberate across our industry for years to come,” said Barden. “Now, more than ever, people want greater predictability. It will become so much more competitive.

“I don’t think our industry really believed what was happening five years ago, and even today I still run into people who say the workforce shortage isn’t real,” she concluded. “Retention is an aviation director’s most critical job today, and it’s getting harder and harder.”