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Employee turbulence: aviation industry’s retention problem

David Chandler, Division Director - Great State

As the holiday season looms – trepidation is mounting as to whether we will see a repeat of last year’s travel chaos, caused in large part by the recruitment and retention crisis within the aviation industry.

Employment stability and contract structures of pilots and other critical staff within the aviation sector, which was devastated by the Covid crisis, has still not yet recovered.

And as HR directors continue to scramble to keep top tier talent engaged and loyal across all industries. It seems it’s no different in the aviation industry where, according to Goose Recruitment’s 2023 Global Pilot Survey, 63% of pilots plan to switch careers in the next year, up from 44% in 2020, suggesting the employee experience is a key contributing factor.

Research by digital customer experience agency Great State supports the view that airlines have made the employee experience intolerable for aviation staff through ‘death from 1000 cuts’. This has led to a feeling of employee burnout, where punishing hours, reduced wages in some cases, and job security concerns has resulted in pilots and other airline staff feeling their status, treatment and conditions have deteriorated. 85% of pilots do not feel their salary is keeping pace with the cost of living, a concerning statistic for airlines struggling to pay top salaries.

To make things worse, the pandemic also made it harder to train new pilots, causing further recruitment challenges. With the UK’s eight biggest airports planning to fly almost 150 million more passengers a year, the pressure is on. Airlines need to ensure everything is done to minimise staff turnover and put in place measures that engage and reward staff to keep retention high and reduce the costs that come with staff churn.

What the Royal Navy got right
With the employee experience now on the front line in the battle for talent, one organisation which the aviation industry can learn from when it comes to developing digital services designed to make working life easier and more fulfilling is the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy and its globally dispersed workforce face similar pain points to airlines. Not only are staff constantly on the move around the globe, but they also work irregular hours, have unique and essential training needs, they don’t always have a set ‘base’, and the organisation has to work harder to create a sense of centralised employee/employer engagement. In 2022, the Royal Navy found themselves in a big retention challenge where more personnel were leaving the service than joining it.

At a time when public spending is under scrutiny, it was more important than ever for the Royal Navy to ensure that every pound spent on employee retention and recruitment was delivering a result.

Here is where digital services, such as employee empowerment tools can make a huge difference.

The Royal Navy took matters into their own hands and championed their own forward-thinking internal digital transformation programme to tackle their human resources challenges. As part of that programme, the Royal Navy’s digital partner, Great State worked closely with their teams to create a bespoke employee engagement and empowerment tool, called MyNavy. It was designed to enhance the lived experience of serving personnel and ease many of the accumulating points of frustration – many of which are nuanced, discreet, and would not have been captured and addressed by off-the-shelf employee engagement and HR products.

The strategy for the employee tool was rooted in research into the personnel who would use it. By continually capturing the data of its users, the MyNavy app allows the Royal Navy to have a better understanding of its personnel and therefore is able to stay ahead of emerging frustrations and challenges, dealing with issues before they arise, and in doing so, become a more engaged and meaningfully supportive employer. For example, MyNavy acts as a key point of organisational communication, with employees receiving tailored communications via push notifications to promote specific actions for specific employees. The utilisation potential of MyNavy has continually expanded since conception, with new services and improved functionality added based on employee requirements.

The Royal Navy wanted an easy-to-use mechanism that encouraged serving personnel to feel empowered in their professional development, that allowed the ability to directly raise issues and suggest improvements to existing services. Taking a user-centric approach, the Royal Navy has modernised the relationship between the organisation and its employees, reducing points of frustration and giving people more control over their working lives.

The opportunities ahead for the aviation industry
Based on interviews conducted by Great State with engineers, pilots and cabin crew working across multiple airlines in the UK, it’s clear that the aviation industry would benefit from implementing a similar approach to the Royal Navy.

For industries in recovery a critical aspect of investing in employee engagement is cost. But creating a single accessible point of contact for airline crew and their employers does not have to come with a high price tag. It can be developed iteratively. Whilst an off-the-shelf product can be a solution, it can still miss the smaller day-to-day challenges that cause employee frustration.

It’s essential to run a discovery and research process to highlight the uniqueness of each organisation and identify key frustrations among staff. How can you support your employees if you don’t understand them? To ensure airline staff don’t feel like they’re being treated as a homogenous set of worker drones, HR teams must personalise their experience as much as possible and offer a bespoke, tailored digital solution accessible right at the user’s fingertips.

Why improving the employee experience is crucial
The retention crisis in aviation is nothing new, but unless something changes it could be set to get far worse without a systematic change of mindset.

For industries still absorbing the retention shock of the pandemic, investing in the employee experience through digital transformation can offer a cost-effective way of digitising manual processes that create friction points and inefficiencies. As customer experience has become a guiding mantra for consumer brands, HR directors in aviation should embrace a similar philosophy in their workplace.

Attracting new talent while keeping the current workforce engaged and satisfied is an ongoing process that takes time. By prioritising the development and welfare of their staff, adapting to new challenges and restructuring training, the industry can flourish and thrive as they take the next generation of airline staff onboard.

When employees begin to feel more listened to, and see their employers are invested in reducing the challenges they face, it creates and instils a sense of loyalty, and alternative careers will begin to look less attractive by comparison. Once they see that their voice is being heard, the sky is the limit.

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