Don’t let the supermarkets bag our best team leaders


A return in flight volumes will be squandered if we lose top employee talent needed to turn the aircraft to rival sectors. Now’s the time to have a heart-to-heart with your rampies says Max Gosney, GHI Chairman

“Hallelujah. At last, flight volumes are inching back up according to traffic data in Europe this week. Polish up those tow bars, fetch the hi-vis from the dry cleaners and start swotting up on coning arrangements for an A320. But before all of that: get the furloughed guys on speed dial and tell the team leader, despatcher and pushback driver the joyous news that they could be starting back in the near future.

Err, except they won’t. You see the team leader is stacking shelves at the supermarket, the despatcher wants to retrain as a teacher and the pushback driver is set on driving trucks instead of tugs. All three tell you the same thing over the telephone: “The trust is gone after what’s happened with the coronavirus and I’ve decided not to come back.”

It’s a scary, but all too real scenario for many ground handlers over the months ahead. A welcome trend of increasing flight movements will trigger initial conversations over bringing dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of furloughed employees back to the station. A less welcome fact is that many may politely decline the offer.

One ramp operative told GHI this week that colleagues had already had their heads turned by supermarkets, logistics companies, healthcare and security firms. An almanac’s worth of apron experience will be lost forever. Traded in part for the prospect of earning a few dollars or Euros an hour more and – more crucially – because employers in those rival industries offer greater security and structured career paths.

We still have time to talk our team leaders and supporting cast back from the ledge. But doing so is going to require something much more dynamic than a didactic: ‘there’s your job back and be grateful for it’. 

The ramp agent described to me how they craved being given clear assurances over their job security: for management to guarantee no more redundancies and remove the spectre of reduced working hours. All of which would need to be given in writing, they added, and presumably on company headed notepaper to boot.

What a devastating insight into how low trust levels have plummeted in some areas of the sector between shopfloor and management. The Covid-19 crisis has ripped open old wounds. Cynical rampies’ darkest fears about deceitful bosses wanting to ditch jobs and generally shaft workers have been exacerbated by the cruel cutbacks brought on by the pandemic. ‘Funny, how the top bods at HQ stayed in work,” acrid agents will mutter amid oaths never to trust a suit ever again.

That narrative is both inaccurate and unhelpful, but it is also a conspiracy theory of our own making. The sector has muddled on for far too long with severe skills shortages. Nearly 80% of operators reported trouble finding employee talent pre-pandemic and attrition levels soar towards 100% in some locations.

Managers have been complicit in viewing frontline employees as a disposable commodity rather than a valued asset. ‘If we hire enough people in then one of them will stick’ or ‘if you have arms, legs and can wiggle your fingers and thumbs then the ramp agent job is all yours’ are stock phrases from of our hiring manual. Detailed career plans or cross skilling initiatives are not.

It’s down to us– the business leaders- to fix the problem. Of course, offering cast iron guarantees about jobs and working hours is nigh on impossible under current Covid-19 chaos. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t broach the topic among our staff with a fresh level of compassion, candidness and integrity.

Talk your ramp team through the challenges, the likely make up and volume of daily schedules compared to six months ago. These experts in their own backyard know the ebb and flow of the airport traffic inside out and sharing strategy and KPIs freely will go a long way to only engendering the trust and empathy we find so lacking.

Heed the advice of business author, Stephen Covey who advocates the need to ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’ in his 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. We’re almost hardwired to go about things the other way around: ‘Why won’t they listen to what I’m telling them? What is this person’s problem?’. Look to answer that question and you might be pleasantly surprised by the ground it gains.

Because your people feel vulnerable, scared and frustrated by the turmoil this vicious virus has unleashed on their lives. They don’t need a pep talk on business growth strategies or an HR on-boarding programme. They need you to step up, look them in the eye and address their basic human need for security, safety and assurances of a consistent pay day. In short, we need to meet the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Many rampies may have been hired because ‘they had arms and legs’. Well breaking news: they have hearts and minds too. The sooner we adjust our leadership style accordingly then the more our operations will gain from individuals bringing brains (measured in innovation and engagement) as well as brawn back on shift.

Ultimately – with goodwill on both sides –  there has to be a reckoning point where an employee’s need for security and earning potential achieves equilibrium with as a business leader’s desire for efficiency, innovation and workforce flexibility. An industry saddled with near 80% skills shortages pre-Covid-19 can’t afford to settle for anything less.

Every employee who resigns within the first few months of joining a ground handler sets their employer back around $3,000-$4,000 in training alone according to panellists at GHI’s 2nd Leaders Academy this February. You can add many more zeros to the sum for seasoned pushback drivers or dispatchers.

Don’t sit idly by and let employees who belong on our aprons be lost to the supermarket aisles instead. Ring them up and remind them of their intrinsic value to your operation while remaining candid over the uncertain times still ahead.

In dark times, reports of aircraft returning to the skies offer us something. But unless we ensure the talent is in place on the ground ready to greet them then it will all amount to nothing.”

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