Launched on the back of an overwhelming problem within the sector, that of staff selection and retention, the GHI conference sought to shed some light on what has become an ongoing talking point within the industry.
The event brought together speakers from both within and without the industry. Their common link was that of experience with staff and how to treat the workforce so that employees felt valued and inspired by their workplace. Easier said than done, perhaps, but nonetheless it was interesting to listen to the approaches offered.
Fujifilm’s Colin Boughton spoke on employee engagement from a sector totally alien to that of ground handling. The film company went through a crisis some years back when digital technology swept all before it: the enterprise was subsequently obliged to adapt, switching from film manufacture to specialised inks as analogue processing faded away. But, at the time, traditional sales fell as costs rose and margins were eroded: it was, in short, a nightmarish situation.
The common element in the transformation, though, was that of people - and Boughton explained that staff had to embrace new packaging systems and procedures. The cost of failure in the processing of inks was also high, so it behoved the company to get things right at the start.
According to the speaker, the workforce had to be led through the change but it was on the basis of “culture before strategy”. Fostering a pride in the work was deemed a desirable ethic; and pride led to committed engagement. The business was split into cells with each responsible for its part in the whole, and from seeing the job through from start to finish. There were five minute briefings each morning, with feedback encouraged. The philosophy of gemba (the Japanese word for “the real place”) was part of the change; training was seen as a priority, and various recognition ploys were introduced to incentivise the workforce. In short, explained Boughton, employee engagement came through empowerment, while overriding all this was the vital commodity of communication.
From back office to baggage handling
Martin Greenaway’s story was unusual, to say the least. An erstwhile IT engineer, he was made redundant at the turn of the century and in 2003 took up an airport job as a complete change. He relayed to the audience his impressions from the first day, when he was inducted: basic instructions, with little explanation, and the lure of overtime summed up his experience. Beginning at the bottom of the hierarchy, he learned much and today, as Head of Operations at London’s Southend airport, he was able to look back on his experience and suggest improvements to the system.
One of his main achievements was that of introducing a more employee-centric programme and looking anew at the status quo. In some respects he was obliged to: a sudden surge in flight numbers and concomitant passengers (the station went from 30,000 to 800,000 almost overnight) ensured a great deal of focus. Leased GSE made an appearance; staff were made aware of the cost of equipment; and employees were encouraged to take responsibility. Training was enhanced, via a combination of classroom, video and pictorial prompts. Most important of all, he revealed, was the necessity to celebrate success: in his book, this was key.
The hidden cost
Employee retention on a budget – an intriguing hook for anyone who was in the business of hiring staff. Provolution’s Michael Stephens certainly caught the audience’s attention with this introduction, but he went on to reveal some less palatable facts. The average UK workforce turnover he put at 15% yet cross into aviation, and that figure doubles – and, in fact, can go all the way to 100%. Each new employee, he averred, costs a business around £30,000 and this is often an invisible cost. Other, more evident problems, included those of frustration as staff leave, together with reduced levels of efficiency. Add to that the fact that both time and resources suffer, and the situation is clearly not an enviable one.
Stephens suggested a four pronged strategy that could help companies retain their staff. Building a culture was the first step, and he reiterated the comments of an earlier speaker who had flagged up culture as the main building block in the process. Recruiting to retain might sound glib, but this, averred, Stephens, was vital: look for potential staff who are looking for a career. Training to retain followed as a necessary process if the workplace was to remain a stable one; and finally, communication of the overarching company culture had to be actioned. Ideally, this latter should be daily, he felt.
Delivering future talent to the industry was the theme promote by Patricia Batista, of the Empower Skills International Academy. Hers was a psychologist’s viewpoint, and as such, very relevant to the proceedings. Her statistics didn’t make for bedtime reading: around 40% of handlers leave their job in Europe within the first 12 months. Moreover, only 28% reported that in-house training was felt to be effective. A further 40% of respondents believed that a lack of skills was the main challenge to recruitment.
She went on to highlight some of the problems between flight crew and handlers, which included poor communication, slight collaboration, insufficient resource management and a lack of knowledge. Given that all the signs point to huge growth within the aviation sector, it was essential that these deficiencies were addressed as soon as possible: career progression and training and development were priorities going forward.
Batista also touched on the importance of soft skills, mentioning emotional awareness, creativity and confidence, together with the need for adaptability and communication. The generation gap was also highlighted – and the importance of bridging this gulf. With a multi-generation workforce, she felt that it was important to establish a sense of community. Empowering proactivity was a useful path to take, as was regular face-to-face feedback: both of these facets would be benefits to the sector.
The millennial dilemma
The Aviation Leadership Academy’s Desiree Perez hosted a workshop that embraced strengths, behaviours and development and she echoed many of the comments already made by previous experts. It was important to establish the correct balance between technical and soft skills but arguably more important still was understanding the change in the workforce occasioned by the arrival of the millennial. This segment of society can expect to have more than six employers during their lifetime; they view a job in the light of possible trade-offs; for them the work/life balance is of more importance than remuneration; and they are heavily dependent upon technology. In addition to this list, to them the generation gap is a very real chasm.
She went on to stress the importance of defining the company culture and enabling the front line staff, observations that had already been made. Choosing employees for a cultural fit was desirable; and emphasis was laid on setting up a sound performance review process.
Lean and mean
Six Sigma was discussed briefly by Paul Allen of Allen and Partners in his workshop after lunch as he dilated on reducing waste and maximising existing potential. The customer was at the core of any operation and understanding his or her needs could not be emphasised enough. It was all a question of measuring the speed of flow of value to the customer: once that was established, then value time vis-à-vis waste time could be calculated.
He presented the audience with a memorable example: the stapler. Such a humdrum object takes ten minutes to manufacture yet the raw material, primarily steel, is kept in stock for a month. In objective terms, this means that 99% of the process is waste. He then cited Toyota, which takes just four hours to turn out a car although the overall process involves sight hours in the factory: whilst this 50% value figure is to be applauded, it has taken the Japanese enterprise decades to reach this target.
With Six Sigma protocols, one interpretation was that three mistakes per 1,000 attempts was permissible. Some, however, would aver that this is too lenient. Ultimately, the need to remove chaos (or disorder) from the day to day work was high on his agenda; only then would greater efficiency and productivity be allowed through.
This presentation was followed by a lively workshop from Michael Stephens who was intent on impressing upon the audience that ideas should not be stifled and that freedom of thought ought to be encouraged. Trust and respect were inherent in this type of teamwork and interaction and, he stressed, it was important to let go of one’s ego…
The day rounded off with a panel debate on the subject at the heart of the conference: that of staff retention. With a representative group, ranging from handlers to specialists in human resources, the topic was enthusiastically addressed. Whilst the changing face of the workforce could not be ignored, neither could the lower level of today’s skill sets be overlooked. It was agreed that a better working relationship between hander and airline was desirable; and there was worry over whether the industry was being dumbed down. Has aviation, in fact, become a glorified bus service? The increasing levels of automation could not be ignored, and so it was important to flag up the new opportunities that the sector offered. But, as more and more aircraft were being built and as more and more people took to the skies, so it was necessary to prepare today for what the next decade would bring. To that end, it was debated whether some sort of formal training scheme should be introduced. It was also noted that no formal recognition of how well the industry performs exists: surely the time had come to address this oversight? In short, it was agreed that anything that could be done to raise the profile of the ground handling sector would be more than welcome.