The answer to the air cargo leadership crisis

  • May 28, 2014

One observer likens the air cargo industry to a village. As its longest-time residents retire and leave, empty spaces remain. New residents need to move to the village if it hopes to innovate.

“It’s not a really big industry,” Joost van Doesburg says. “The world air cargo industry is just a small village where people know each other, and that’s really the positive aspect. But it’s a global village, so we have many different cultures. It has a really international dynamic that I really like. It’s about enabling trade.”

Van Doesburg, the European Shippers’ Council airfreight policy manager in Brussels, was a participant in the International Air Transport Association’s Future Air Cargo Executive Summit (FACES) at the World Cargo Symposium in March. FACES is a program tailored for air cargo professionals under 35 years old who have the ambition to become a future executive – in other words, the exact people the airfreight industry is trying to attract.

Right now, air cargo does not attract younger employees as well as it should, says Jim Edgar, chairman of The International Air Cargo Association’s (TIACA) education and research committee and Boeing’s regional director cargo marketing.

“I think it’s a very underestimated and underappreciated industry,” Edgar says. “It’s a tremendous contributor to our lifestyle that we enjoy and facilitating trade, and my experience is that the people that are involved in it, get it and are very excited and very enthusiastic. And as a result, it has an unusually strong amount of longevity among its participants and executives. People tend to stick with it.”

But the airfreight industry finds itself with a potential “leadership crisis,” according to the results of a two-year research project focused on identifying educational needs for the next generation of air cargo managers. A task force led by TIACA, with active support from IATA and other organizations, published the results at the start of 2014.

The report stresses that without access to accredited educational programs, the air cargo industry faces the difficulty of equipping qualified talent and the loss of rising managers to other sectors or industries.

But the report’s findings are a warning of what could be – not what is. It’s up to the air cargo industry to act.


The hurdles to great air cargo leadership

“Retaining people is always a big challenge for any kind of industry, not just the air cargo industry,” says Aman Gupta, program chair for logistics and supply chain management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University worldwide campus.

Edgar says air cargo leaders have stayed in the industry a long time because airfreight was especially exciting a few decades ago. But because of that longevity, there were not as many opportunities for younger employees. That leaves few people to take the leaders’ place as they now start to retire.

“It’s a two-edged sword,” Edgar says. “The good news is that people stayed, and we had a tremendous amount of experience and longevity…The bad news is that didn’t create as many opportunities as there should have been for other people to come along to take leadership roles.”

Ann Drake, CEO of DSC Logistics, is founder of Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chains Operations, Management and Education (AWESOME), an organization she began in 2013 to help female executives in the supply chain industry, including air cargo, connect with one another.

Drake says fewer women may work in supply chain management because of a belief that people must possess physical strength to work in transportation.

“It didn’t appeal to women, and women weren’t seen as fitting into that environment. That’s all changed now. That’s all changed as it becomes much more sophisticated than it used to be,” she says.

Now, air cargo requires analytical, technical and engineering talent.

“It’s not about working in a dusty air cargo warehouse,” Drake says.

Van Doesburg says the industry needs more women.

“Females are thinking in a different way, and thinking in a different way is really positive in an air cargo world where everybody almost thinks the same,” he says.

Many interviewees say air cargo has an image problem that is affecting its prospects for leadership: People either aren’t aware of airfreight or have the wrong idea of it.

“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t done as good as job as we should have in telling the air cargo story and what it’s contributed to globalization, to lowest cost producer, to multiple assembly processes and that type of thing,” Edgar says.

The common thread in the industry is that people began working in it by accident, says Mike Bonnett, JetBlue Cargo’s manager of West Coast cargo operations in Seattle.

“Once people learn about the industry, they really love it, and once people get into it, I think everybody is really passionate about the industry,” says Bonnett, a participant of IATA’s FACES program. “But I don’t think the industry or the players within the industry do a really great job of getting the message out about what air cargo does and how it helps the economy and what the exciting opportunities are within air cargo.”

Freight transportation has a bad name, van Doesburg says, while air passenger transport has a great name.

“Everyone wants to work with an airline, but nobody wants to work with the freight part of an airline. I really think that both industries are as attractive for people, but due to this image of the airfreight part, a lot of talented people in the airlines, when they had the opportunity, they went to the company with a better image, the passenger side,” he says. “Definitely in the past, many talented people went from freight to passengers – and this was a promotion.”

Gupta says air cargo doesn’t make itself appealing in terms of work culture in comparison to tech companies, which have beanbag chairs and bike programs in the office.

Nina Hampel, manager sales and customer service at LUG aircargo handling in Frankfurt, says air cargo is an exciting industry, but she also summarizes its problems. Hampel is a FACES participant.

“It is also a very conservative industry and very male-dominated. Many of the work practices are outmoded. It certainly has not arrived in the digital age yet, in contrast to the passenger aviation industry. It is still a paper-driven industry,” Hampel says. “The focus remains on manual processes and personal relationships. This would be not critical if yields were not so poor and many participants were hemorrhaging cash. I firmly believe change is needed.”


How to ensure the future of airfreight

On a Thursday in May, 15 graduating students from St. Joseph High School in Connecticut visited freight forwarder BTX Global Logistics. Their goal was to learn more about the industry.

BTX executives presented to the high school seniors, and afterward, the students split into smaller groups to create their own products, everything from LED screens to men’s shampoo. Ultimately, the mock businesses were faced with the challenges of managing a supply chain. BTX led each group through the transportation process of getting their products manufactured, warehoused and finally shipped to market.

“The air cargo industry is somewhat of an unknown to many – certainly to high school seniors just starting out on their own paths,” Ross Bacarella, president of BTX, says. “Pulling back the curtain on how airfreight winds its way though the supply chain of all business is exciting, even at this stage in their lives.”

This day teaching students about air cargo is an example of what many think the industry needs to thrive. It starts with finding the younger people who are interested in airfreight.

“Once people find it, they love it, but the question is are we finding the people that are really going to drive change within the business?” Bonnett says.

Bonnett mentions career fairs and development initiatives such as FACES. He also says colleges with similar logistics programs could partner in order to talk about how to develop air cargo into a curriculum.

The industry should not only appoint people to go to universities to promote air cargo, but also work on a standard textbook to use, van Doesburg says. Gupta says the air cargo industry should approach middle and high schools, much like BTX does.

Air cargo companies also need to collaborate with universities more closely, he says, pointing out that technology companies already do so.

“They kind of work with universities to develop their curriculum in a manner that addresses their current and future needs, which is very powerful for me,” Gupta says.

TIACA identified that the air cargo industry requires soft skills such as planning and forecasting, Edgar says. So with that in mind, TIACA is holding a three-day workshop in Amsterdam in June for 20-25 students, who will range from first-level supervisors and managers to MBA students. Topics will include supply chain management, interpreting data and revenue management.

Edgar says TIACA wants to eventually develop that workshop into a three-year online certificate program.

“This is kind of a new endeavor for us,” he says.

Jennifer Haigh, strategic accounts manager at Morpho Detection in Boston and a FACES participant, says aviation-focused educational programs at universities rarely mention cargo. Offering a course in cargo operations would be helpful, Haigh says.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is launching a joint program with IATA. Each organization will offer a few online courses for a certificate program in airfreight and air logistics, which is launching in June, Gupta says.

Education is one of the keys to workforce development. Gupta says if air cargo companies offered opportunities such as sending employees to development programs, employees would feel that the company is ready to invest in them.

He also talks about free massive open online courses, saying some companies allow workers to take an hour or two a day to attend those classes and complete the assignments.

Drake exudes enthusiasm when she talks about AWESOME, which has a network of more than 500 women, and how it has helped female supply chain managers network.

Drake hopes AWESOME will have a mentorship program and a greater international reach in the future.

“I do believe supply chain is the field or industry or megatrend of the 21st century,” she says. “I get really jazzed up when I think about what I can do with these incredible, talented women we’re finding who are buried in organizations, sort of on their own.”

Hampel says the airfreight industry does not market itself effectively, adding that most businesses do not realize the importance of “employer branding.”

“Very little is done to attract and develop young talent and promote gender diversity. Also, the further development of existing staff and career planning for junior managers is sorely neglected in many a company,” she says. “There is an urgent need to invest more in people.”

Attracting the next generation of leaders – and making sure they stay – will help the industry innovate. Van Doesburg says it falls upon the younger generation to change the industry. On average, people in air cargo are 50 years old, so they have been doing their job a certain way for a long time.

“We cannot really expect change from this group of people. They have done so much for our industry,” he says. “It really depends on the younger generation.”

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