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Airfreight focuses on attracting young, diverse talent

By Adina Solomon on March 13, 2014

The air cargo industry admits that it doesn’t always attract young talent.

“We don’t have enough people with the skills and the knowledge and the ability to innovate, to drive and make the changes required in our industry,” said Lilian Tan, executive director learning and development at Strategic Aviation Solutions International, at WCS’ People & Training track.

A student studying transportation won’t often think of air cargo, even though it’s an exciting business, Lise-Marie Turpin, vice president cargo at Air Canada, said.

“It’s become very urgent in that as an industry, we’re really pressed to retain the relevancy of air cargo transportation,” Turpin said. “We really need to think twice about how we’re going to forge ahead and for that, we need a different skill set.”

Besides a need for young talent, companies must also fill the gap left by experienced people retiring, she said.

“This is a service and relationship business with a very expensive delivery system,” Tim Strauss, managing director of Hawaiian Air Cargo, said.

Strauss said the industry tends to focus more on the delivery system part, but the relationship and service aspect is where the future lies.

“The purpose of training is to drive profits for the corporation, to increase the value of your human capital,” he explained.

Strauss said an attractive feature to bring people from the outside is that only in cargo do people run their own organization, a sentiment that Turpin echoed. Cargo arms of airlines usually operate much like their own company.

So working in cargo is preparation for management anywhere, Strauss said.

The average millennial will stay in a company for 28 months, and 41 percent will leave if there is not an “excellent” training and development program, he said.

“Why do we lose that talent?” Strauss asked. “Because we don’t work to keep it from the start.”

He advised to remain selective during the hiring process and invest in employees.

Michael Bell, practice leader aviation, aerospace, defense at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, spoke with present and former air cargo leaders. He found that airfreight leaders used to come from the operating side of airlines, but now, non-air-cargo executives are being appointed as heads of air cargo.

“Suddenly, you’re seeing that as a development platform,” Bell said.

Sometimes, air cargo executives have no aviation experience, just a broader supply chain background.

Bell also said there are fewer independent companies, leading to fewer CEO jobs.

Air cargo is trending toward more gender diversity, though Bell noted that every leader he spoke with was male. He said freight forwarders tend to have more women employed than airlines do.

“What’s a little scary there is there seems to be more diversity in the customer base,” Bell said.

Some best practices for companies to hire and retain talent include having a focused recruitment strategy, defined professional advancement paths and a regularly reviewed succession plan.

“There’s really no career path, so a vision would be to develop a career path,” said Jim Edgar, regional marketing director for Boeing and The International Air Cargo Association’s (TIACA) chairman of the education and research committee.

Bell said the best companies are always recruiting and build effective retention mechanisms for employees.

“They like the culture. They like who they’re working with. They feel part of the team,” he said.

Bell advised aspiring leaders to be a business executive first and an air cargo professional second and to seek out tough assignments that no one else wants.

Edgar said TIACA conducted a study of the educational needs for air cargo. The study found that companies that incorporate training into their human resource development will continue to have a pool of educated employees and that the majority of industry programs labeled as training focus on on-the-job training.

“Our industry is very good at on-the-job training,” Edgar said. “Not so much at the other part.”

TIACA came to the conclusion that the industry needs a certificate program to develop and educate budding leaders, he said.

Julie Weber, Southwest Airlines vice president people, said engaged employees will stay at an organization.