March 3, 2024

Recognising and rewarding ‘employability’ in aviation services 

I want to examine what ‘employability’ looks like in the travel services sector today. Is the recruitment process equipping the current job market with fit-for-purpose individuals? Is the provision for hiring in need of shifting in 2024? 

My colleague Lance Hayward, Founder of The Hayward Partnership, has described the post-COVID status of our industry as one of ‘permacrisis’. That term reflects the levels of insecurity and instability as the demands for a speedy and seamless recovery were impeded by shortfalls in resources and talent to serve the global upturn.  

To fuel the debates as to where we can source new entrants, rather than simply move resources around the market, I have reached out for trusted opinions from my network. 

We need to explore several questions:  

Is the importance of assessing all aspects of employability now recognised as a main criterion for a hiring brief? That includes considering what the term means and why it is business-critical in the long term.  

When addressing the concerns of ‘permacrisis’, is there fresh evidence of whether those exploring the sector for new opportunities and those doing the hiring are becoming better aligned?  

If so, are we going to see more positive synergies in terms of providing our demanding sector with the essential energy, agility and endeavour required by next-generation employees to overcome the inevitable challenges that lie ahead?  

When hiring, we know that employers expect a certain flexibility, a strong and resourceful mindset, and the determination to realise strategic and business credentials. Does this reflect the attributes for employability and, if yes, how do we spot the right hires?   

You learn, earn and give back 

Some say a good career has three main components: learning, earning and giving back. This adage has more than a ring of truth to me.  

The other recruitment advice I always heed is the words of Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines about hiring for attitude and not for skills because skills can be trained. That makes sense as long as the culture (and attitude) of the hiring business fully subscribes to this credo, and can safeguard a secure and constructive onboarding into the organisation. In other words, can companies be trusted to deliver on their contractual promises to new employees? 

Is there evidence that a greater focus on valuing a candidate’s positive and outgoing attitude and personality type is challenging the more traditional and established recruiting practices? If so, will our sector attract new skills, fresh energy and greater diversity?  

The outlook of an optimist 

At a café during a post-lunch lull, I encountered a London-based barista who loved meeting people. I was enjoying a break between meetings and was curious – as always.  

I overheard him discussing the need to update his CV. Patrick shared details of his past education, present university studies and future plans. Close to the perfect elevator pitch, his attitude and energy matched his articulation. He was alert and open.  

“If I don’t keep my ears and eyes open and learn whilst I am in this job, I am wasting my opportunity to grow. Meeting people is the best part of my day and you never know where such conversations will take you,” said Patrick.  

I found his comments encouraging and, sadly, all too rare. He was positive while many of his are reserved, indifferent or just bored. He was motivated and open to options where others might not look for opportunities. Above all, he was earning whilst learning more about himself and his potential. Throughout our discussion, he was demonstrating evidence of ‘employability’.

Personal values and competencies

Significantly, even with my long experience, I was reacting to Patrick’s personal values and not, as is more traditional, prioritising a deeper understanding of his competencies. Both aspects matter, of course.  

Let’s never forget that employability relates to a wider set of skills and not just one attribute. But in this case, it was those winning personality traits I spotted in Patrick that left a lasting impression and made me want him to be a success in the future.  

This got me thinking. Is my reaction now becoming more typical? Is my appreciation of Patrick and his openness and optimism an example of impulse, or a subtle adjustment in the thinking in a hiring process for the current times, when the sight of flexibility is key?  

Is it wise to evaluate a candidate not so squarely on his past roles and experience but equally on what they have to offer in the future in terms of identifying the more empirical evidence in front of me? 

I concluded that such thinking was very much in scope and worthy of more consideration.    

Insights from industry champions 

Fast forward to a telephone conversation with Ariane van Mancius – a true champion of identifying talent and providing opportunities to the next generation of fit-for-purpose employees. 

Ariane’s successful business venture Now New Next actively sets out to collaborate with academic establishments in her native Netherlands. By way of a reciprocal arrangement, Ariane supports their curriculums by sharing deep insights into her core business of packaging design and in return gains formal access to institutions’ student populations.  

This gives her office access to willing, educated and ambitious talent – some of whom are invited to take up internships. Having done well, the best candidates may stay in full-time roles as a result of proving to be highly employable and valuable new resources. 

Ariane van Mancius’ viewpoint 

In Ariane’s words: “It’s a business wheel which works perfectly” and it revolves around the ability to recognise the key drivers of employability, provide real-life experience and nurture the new talent into becoming enthusiastic and confident employees targeting future success.   

Taking this approach may be considered as risky. In some cases, it will not pay off.  

However, as Ariane also said, if a job seeker is “attracted to a beacon” in the shape of an exciting career opportunity, and the business takes the risk, it’s then the task of the onboarding team to mitigate that risk and to ground and settle the recruit by doing all the mentoring possible to get the return on their investment.  

Creating the best environment for employability to thrive is very much a mutual process. At Now New Next the accountability to make it work sits with the leadership team and this approach seems to be a winning one because it’s respected by all the stakeholders and well managed. 

Ariane confirmed that potential hires approach interviews differently today and tend to seek more reassurance and understanding. They may come with set boundaries or preconceptions of the benchmarks for the scope of work required. For example, signs that the company offers a transparent work-life balance must be evident to ensure a high degree of motivation and trust.     

Simon Soni’s perspectives 

Another industry spokesperson who knows the marketplace is Simon Soni. He recently returned to British Airways in an interim role. Simon’s views are always measured and astute. His thoughts reflect lengthy tenures during a successful career working around the world enhancing cabin services for several big airlines.  

Asking what qualities attracted him in hiring, he also shared the vision of Herb Kelleher, stating he looked for “energy and a commitment to hard work, someone prepared to take on a role and do it willingly.” 

As a novice at British Airways, Simon’s boss told him she was taking a risk on him but had seen enough to back him to “give it a go”. In other words, she made the important commitment to him as a person, knowing he was far from the finished article.

Industry expert Simon Soni
Industry expert Simon Soni. (Photo courtesy of Simon Soni.)

Management trust and belief

It’s that type of commitment which is motivational: to be told to believe that you can do it, and, as your manager, I will back you. Show effort and I will teach you. It’s such a confidence boost and erases the all-too-common fear of ‘the imposter’ entering the workplace and being fearful of adding the anticipated value in quick time. 

Good employees, motivated employees, want to find themselves in the right space with the right mentors. When that happens, it is sometimes the only trigger needed to settle, to get busy, and to learn. It certainly worked for Simon, who is now a proven and connected leader whose own experience and confidence can inspire those around him.  

Both Ariane and Simon demonstrate the necessary patience to work with potential, nurture it and give their own quality time to encourage growth. In particular, once on board in a new role, Simon believes that for long-term career development, hired talent should be looking for learnings broadly and deeply from across a business rather than fretting too much about gaining rapid ascendancy through the ranks. 

Questioning the selection process

Perhaps, therefore, businesses ought to re-consider whether hiring without all the requisite skills really is so shortsighted or unsustainable and, instead, ask different questions during the interview and selection processes.  

As Simon says: “I think, in general, existing leaders need to be more open to looking for the true signs of potential when sourcing recruits.” 

Similar indications of opportunities for talented newcomers come from Polly Magraw and Marie Harper from the RELX group of companies.  

RELX owns RX, the global event management company responsible for staging the annual WTCE event in Hamburg. Polly is a great ambassador stating: “The events sector is far more varied and diverse than people often realise. If you’re passionate about the industries our events serve and can recognise the value of bringing communities together to network and do business in a professional yet fun environment then why not consider a career in the events space?” 

According to Polly and Marie, employability for RX means, “being diligent, committed, well organised, resilient, creative and with a ‘can do’ positive attitude and an eagerness to learn at pace. Even though the level of experience may vary for each role, often the behaviours and mindset you demonstrate can be more important.” 

Hiring on attitude  

One rising star with a positive attitude who always has an answer to my questions and brings great curiosity is Phyllis Fercho, until recently a sustainability champion at LSG Group.  

In developing her career, Phyllis has benefitted from two things I consider to be essential ingredients in the process of onboarding the most employable candidates. The first is a good mentoring programme. The other is encouragement to seek and take on new responsibilities and opportunities when they arise.  

Phyllis is in many ways a model of employability, a productive and resourceful individual. She shared her philosophy on what good employers can do to extract the very best from their intakes of new talent. She speaks of mutual respect leading to a shared appreciation between her and the managers who trained her so well.  

She also refers to Gen Zs needing a greater degree of flexibility in the workplace, and that hiring on attitude where values are as important as competencies is an encouraging and positive new trend. Not to do so, is, in Phyllis‘s words, to “keep looking in the rear-view mirror”. 

Mike Pooley at Oxford Brookes Business School.
Mike Pooley at Oxford Brookes Business School. (Photo courtesy of Mike Pooley.)

Educating the next generation  

The process of identifying employability in graduates leaving higher education and exposing them to a greater awareness of our industry’s opportunities has been a keen focus of mine for some time. I have spent 10 years travelling to Oxford Brookes University as a mentor and speaker supporting students in the Hospitality and Tourism electives and more recently took on a wider assignment as a Visiting Industrial Fellow at the Oxford Brookes Business School (OBBS). As a result, I am constantly looking to cement a more formal interface and establish collaborations with the aviation services sector.  

As Polly pointed out, our sector’s footprint is truly international and provides a strong enticement to consider a future opening.  

Globally, there is a large number of opportunities to explore. My current focus is identifying tangible examples for hiring which will support both the sector and the ambitious graduate talents now increasingly well-equipped to enter the workspace.  

The basis for progressing this initiative is for both parties – education and industry leaders – to reach out to each other to discuss the best ways to match potential with demand and to generate successful placements or career options providing clear and mutual benefits to all concerned. 

Engagement starts with a sharing of each other’s perspectives and options to develop meaningful collaborations which can make a real difference in promoting and better understanding contemporary topics such as sustainability, digitalisation and AI which are all on the agendas of organisations and service providers in the space.

A cohesive approach

As both a Visiting Fellow to the OBBS, and together with The Hayward Partnership, I can point to many first-hand examples of how valuable and informative such a cohesive approach can prove to be. In the past year, I have committed to several live events on campus for both undergraduate and masters programmes.  

Lance Hayward has also provided workshop materials for the MBA electives to further develop and present as possible real-time business solutions. We both sat on panels as the students studying the Entrepreneurial elective presented their final entries to the 2023 OBBS Dragon’s Den showcase event. All these activities were part of our learning experience for the best ways to interact going forward.  

Insights from the campus

From an academic perspective, The School of Hospitality, Tourism, and Events Management (SHTEM) at OBBS attracts students looking at a future in these three dynamic and interrelate`d sectors. Dr Anna Klenert, Senior Lecturer in Leadership Development and the Module Leader for Post-Graduate Placements needs: “Employers to create visibility to show what they do so together we can accommodate the best of learning experiences.”  

Through activities such as guest speaking, field trips, placements and industry mentoring companies operating in those sectors can make an immediate connection and impact. Anna adds, “The Oxford Brookes Business School mission is all about inspiring minds and unlocking potential. It is through this process that the students can engage at every level by expressing creativity, confidence, and intelligence and find the sense of direction that starts to make choosing a career more tangible and relevant for the longer term.”

Dr Jonathan Louw, Principal Lecturer at OBBS, has teaching expertise in sustainability and employability. He sees the opportunity for employers to create placements in industry as “a low-risk investment” and one that can often result in real transformational change with future offers of full-time engagements post-graduation because the structured learning programme has delivered such tangible value resulting in mutual rewards for both employer and student alike. In fact, “the perfect wheel” – exactly as Ariane described it to me. 

Making the obvious link between Anna’s ambitions and future opportunities presented in the travel services sector, Simon summarises the potential for real collaboration by stressing that our wide variety of businesses offers international exposure and a broad range of roles and training options. He correctly assesses those students with hospitality training “can identify the parallels” in terms of their profiles showing a capacity for employability.  

Gaining insight into students’ expectations and shaping mindsets by promoting our workplace is a great way to introduce career options in the sector.

Employability in aviation services 

I would like to alert interested parties within the industry that there is a pool of talent to dip into and a way to assess new sources of recruiting and attracting graduate resources. Contact me directly, by emailing Mike Pooley, if you have any questions about this topic or would like more details about getting involved in enhancing the future delivery of service excellence and process improvement.

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