New Blood

Welcome to the millennial workforce.

People born between 1977 and 1994 are now entering the air traffic management industry in vast numbers and will shape the sector for years to come.

So what are their career aspirations, attitudes to work, and expectations in using new technology? Knowing the answers may go a long way to help harness the culture of the 21st century workplace.

Vastly outnumbering the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation, Millennials currently account for 25 per cent of the workforce in the United States and within three years will form 50 per cent of the global workforce.

Attracting and keeping that emerging talent is becoming a significant challenge, according to a 2011 study by global consultancy PwC. “It’s clear that Millennials will be a powerful generation of workers and that those with the right skills will be in high demand.” According to the authors of Millennials At Work, Reshaping The Workforce, Millennials may well be able to command not only creative reward packages compared to today’s standards, but also influence the way they work and where and how they operate in the workplace.

And while the behaviour and attributes of Millennials could in part be explained by their age and relative lack of responsibility, the report authors warn it would be misguided to dismiss the generational effect entirely.

One outstanding feature of this generation is Millennials’ use of technology and their affinity with the digital world allied to a demand for instant access to information. This is, the report authors venture, the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than their more senior colleagues.

While their natural inclination to using the latest technology is viewed as positive, their chastening experience of the global economic crisis means however that this generation may be inclined to prioritise personal rather than organisational needs.

Progression

Attitudes to rigid corporate structures and information silos are also different together with an expectation of rapid progression, a varied and interesting career and constant feedback, means that the prevailing management styles and corporate culture need to undergo significant revision.

“The particular characteristics of Millennials – such as their ambition and desire to keep learning and move quickly upwards through an organisation, as well as their willingness to move on quickly if their expectations are not being met – requires a focused response from employers,” the study authors state, citing the likes of Google and Amazon as ‘naturally innovative’ employers who are thriving though seemingly having rejected corporate orthodoxy.

“These companies are not specifically targeting Millennials, but their culture, management style and approach to recruitment and retention naturally appeal to the millennial generation. And because of that, they are able to take their pick of the best younger talent around.”

So how does the air traffic management industry respond?

It does seem disappointingly clear that it has yet to conduct much meaningful research in this area and study those differences systematically.

The emphasis to date has after all been on developing and testing aviation technology, not on examining generational differences in technology adoption or usage. Even so, there seems to be the general consensus that the younger generation of controllers, pilots and technicians who grew up with the internet, touchscreens and smartphones differ from previous generations who grew up without that technology.

“Anecdotally, we know that many controllers, pilots and technicians, regardless of their age, are ‘gear heads’ and early adopters in their personal lives, who like the latest and greatest technology and are eager to adopt it at work,” one US expert tells Air Traffic Management.

Here, he makes the interesting point that just because Millennials are smartphone experts does not necessarily mean they will be easier to train on a new technological system, adding that the types of disruptive technology interaction that the industry is now facing such as autonomous vehicles, intelligent agents and the like are not those about which anyone from any generation really has much experience.

Expectations

Experts within the field include Dr Dana Broach who is a personnel research psychologist at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute within the FAA who writes more comprehensively for ATM on this issue.

In a 2016 paper he co-wrote with Alfretia Scarborough, Broach compared the job expectations of two cohorts of air traffic controllers, one hired in the period 1986–1992 called the ‘Post-Strike’ controllers and the other hgameired in the period 2007–2014 – the ‘Next Generation’ controllers.

The US is a highly relevant workforce to study as any Millennial influence should make itself highly apparent. Why? Because there is a huge hiring surge underway, designed to offset the effects of an ongoing wave of retirements. Around 10,000 air traffic controllers will have retired from the FAA by 2020, linked mostly to the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association strike, when thousands of workers walked off the job to protest pay rates, working hours and retirement benefits.

President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, and the agency hired replacement workers who are now reaching retirement age – en masse.

What Broach and Scarborough did was to examine the career expectations of both Post Strike and Next Generation cohorts and while there were no huge dissimilarities, they did find that unmet, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations on the part of the new Millennial entrants might eventually undermine the level of effort and commitment required to complete the intensive, extensive, and expensive facility training process required to achieve certified professional controller status.

“Current research on factors influencing success and failure in facility training might be expanded to determine what role, if any, expectations played in training outcomes,” they recommend.

Their findings suggest that the ‘want it all now’ approach of the Millennial workforce will need managing in order to prevent career burnout and high levels of voluntary turnover. Broach and Scarborough also recommended that longitudinal studies are conducted over the coming years to enable the FAA to determine whether there is a sharp fall-off of enthusiasm for the job and what it can actively put in place to help the Millennial workforce maintain its commitment and engagement.

Consequences

Only time will tell but if the US does fail to incentivise this generation there could be potentially costly consequences in retaining the numbers of controllers required to maintain a mission critical workforce for the nation.

A further study conducted by US researchers Patrick Hogan and Patrick Jaska was interested in distinguishing differences in attitudes between Millennials and both Generation Xers and Boomers and assess whether changes in the management styles practised in the air traffic control towers were necessary.

The FAA gave the authors access to air traffic control faculty instructors to gain their perceptions regarding their Millennial students and quizzed them over what they perceived as their charges’ attitudes to topics such as leadership, compensation and work environment.

They found that key generation influences were indeed at play and that, despite optimism concerning their students’ motivation in terms of remuneration and strong technology skillsets, the subject matter expert instructors were distinctly less sanguine about the Millennial’s casual and informal approach to leadership. In the highly stressful working environment of a FAA control tower, they found that instructors often felt as if their licence was at risk in the event of training errors, resulting in a noticeably strained attitude towards On-The-Job training (OJT).

Giora Hadar is a knowledge management expert who has worked with the FAA, studying how best to transfer institutional knowledge to Millennials taking into account the fact that age differences can influence the way training is used to gain knowledge.

He insists that OJT will remain a vital method for capturing and transferring tacit knowledge which is used extensively in the FAA to train new air traffic controllers. Even so, he acknowledges that as with any person-to-person approach, it has its own unique intergenerational communications challenges.

“Issues of trust and respect can be barriers to effective communications between the generations,” he says. “Younger workers may view older ones as being technologically challenged while older workers may be dismissive of the less knowledgeable new cohort.”

If one accepts that Millennials are more intrinsically more open to new technologies than their older colleagues and that they embrace mobile smart devices as a part of life and work, Hadar argues this mindset can be usefully exploited to provide the basis for augmented technical training that appeals to the needs of the Millennials.

Inputs

After all, one of the strengths shown by this generational group is its ability to study and work in complex situations – absorbing and moving easily in a world where there are multiple and instantaneous inputs. As the ATM industry transitions towards harnessing increasing levels of automation, this mutable quality must surely be of value as it fits naturally in to an aeronautical world where the intrinsic interdependence of systems requires an immediate understanding of the effect an action in one part of the system has.

One of Hadar’s solutions is exploit the way Millennials learn through playing video games which academic research has shown can be of enormous value to an organisation such as the FAA. “Because the generations bring different ideas, challenges, and opportunities to the workplace, executives should take their attributes into account,” Hadar says.

His team recommends the further development of ATC training using mobile smart devices and interactive serious games; creating a controller ‘community of practice’ – a group of workers in an organisation with shared interests – as well as creating comprehensive knowledge bases to allow Millennials to access mission-critical knowledge through best practices and lessons learned. “Recognising the strength of diversity, the FAA should strive to accommodate differences rather than force everyone into one mold,” he concludes.

Read

The Millennial Workforce Survey in full in Issue 1, 2018.

Wise Counsel

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