Turnover rates are as high as 50% in ground handling, making it tough to run a successful, sustainable business. Low pay, heavy lifting, hard schedules, and outside work in adverse weather are all cited as being part of the problem.
Overcoming these challenges and providing airlines with the safe, efficient service they require will take considerable effort. Ground handlers must recruit effectively, train intelligently, and, ultimately, retain staff for longer. Becoming a talent management-focused organization and embracing digital transformation is the name of the game. Perks, improved rostering, improved facilities, and leadership training are all on ground handlers’ to-do list.
Some companies have even determined to expose candidates to the realities of the job at an early stage by interviewing late at night. After all, shift work is part and parcel of ground operations. Most importantly, rather than have employees, ground handlers must move to offer careers. Progression throughout the working life has become increasingly important to millennial and Gen Z applicants.
In effect, all employees must have the opportunity to become the future CEO and be seen as assets to be developed. This begins with technical training and obtaining the necessary qualifications but also includes leadership and management courses.
Work to attract staff needs to start immediately. The IATA Aviation Ground Handling Report 2019 estimates that 83,000 extra ground staff will be required in the next three years to meet airline operational requirements.
“Recruitment is an important issue in aviation and ground handling is no exception,” says Ivica Kovacic, Head, Global Partnerships and Innovation, IATA Training. “It is a vital area of operations that needs to attract and keep the best possible talent.”
It won’t be easy; global unemployment is at its lowest level for decades, turnover is high, and ground handling has a low profile within the industry, never mind the global job pool. Moreover, education is improving globally, and labor-intensive roles are becoming less appealing.
Nevertheless, industry growth will continue to generate jobs even as technology advances. A recent study of ground handlers by IATA revealed that technology will never completely replace the need for human resources.
Of course, technology will be important. To begin with, it could ease the recruitment process and lead to the best available candidates. “At a basic level, video calls can reduce costs while allowing companies to spread their recruitment catchment area,” says Kovacic. “More advanced is gamification, immediately understandable to younger generations while also supporting the easy identification of desirable traits.”
Once recruited, technologies such as virtual reality (VR) will also have an important role to play in ground ops staff training. Digital training is more immersive and alluring to millennials and Gen Z than traditional classroom courses and has the added benefit of being less costly while providing real-life scenarios in a safe environment. VR allows trainees to experience and walk around the ramp, for example, giving them hands-on understanding without risk.
Moreover, using technology to train new ground handling recruits whenever and wherever possible might mean nobody needs to be taken out of the front line, improving organizational and operational efficiency. And if new recruits learn digitally, they can learn at their own speed, increasing the likelihood of improving their effectiveness and retaining them into the future.
“The shortage of pilots and engineers has been well-documented,” concludes Kovacic. “But aviation demand requires staff in every aspect of the industry. Ground operations is perceived as hard work for low pay in tough conditions and this makes recruiting staff especially difficult. But with the right strategy the challenge can be overcome.”
Standards training… best practice
Airlines must play their part in assisting ground handlers to meet demand by standardizing training. In reality, airlines have few common practices even on the same aircraft type, and so training takes longer than necessary.
“We need to make ground operations training more efficient and standardized across the board, so operations are safer for our people as well as economically feasible for handling companies,” says Joseph Suidan, IATA’s Head of Ground Operations. “Efficient training will increase safety and can also really improve the job satisfaction of ground handlers, resulting in higher retention.”
Recruitment and retention issues are exacerbated by the constant need to train new and existing recruits to provide safe and efficient ground operations. On average, it takes new recruits four weeks to complete mandatory airport training. Taking into account such other training requirements as different aircraft types and equipment, there is clearly considerable cost and time involved that the high turnover rate can scarcely justify.
A large ground handler can take on 20,000 new employees per year, largely to replace leavers. It can take up to six months training for a new employee to reach full productivity as most have no experience of aviation. But in that time, many move on. The cost of training is in excess of $50 million, almost half of which is for training that occurs in the first two weeks of employment. Factor in wages, and this can bring the total nearer $200 million.
To further support the industry, IATA has developed a ground operations training program for frontline personnel that creates an opportunity to reduce costs in airline- specific training, Suidan says.
Chapter 11 of the Airport Handling Manual—on which the training is based—will become a requirement in the Standard Ground Handling Agreement (SGHA) in 2023. Suidan states that one of IATA’s key ground operations objectives for 2020 is to enhance training content and support members with its implementation.
“The safety of employees ensured by standardized ground handling processes is a priority for all ground handlers,” concludes Claire Hall, Menzies’ Global Executive Vice President of People. “We need to find better ways to retain these employees as well as to provide new recruits with the appropriate training so we as an industry can better meet increase demand.”