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Taking Flight

Internal hostilities at the Federal Aviation Administration have sent air traffic controllers rushing for the door as soon as they can retire, triggering a staffing crisis and questions about whether the agency can repair its crippled morale.

June 13, 2008
Related Topics: Stress Management, Retention, Policies and Procedures, Recruitment, Staffing Management

The best part of Bobby Fierro’s workday used to be driving into Los Angeles International Airport and seeing friends and family reunite at the different terminals.

"I took a lot of pride in my work, and seeing that every morning was very rewarding," he says.

But because of an impasse in negotiations between his union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and Federal Aviation Administration management, the environment in airport control towers has become downright hostile, he says.

That’s why Fierro walked away from his annual salary of $160,000 and retired after 25 years on the job. He announced his retirement August 16—his 50th birthday—the first day he was eligible for retirement benefits.

Such early retirements are increasingly common in an agency that struggles with constant accusations of mismanagement and a dis­pirited workforce. High wages and good benefits may not be enough to keep air traffic controllers on the job.

"Morale is not high on companies’ priority list when they are thinking about how to address the pending talent shortage," says Arthur Wheaton, a workplace and industry education specialist at Cornell University. "The situation at the FAA shows how crucial it is."

Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years of service. And the onset of baby boomer retirements also raises serious concerns. These early retirements come as the FAA expects 72 percent of its air traffic controllers to become eligible for retirement by 2016.

In January, there were about 11,000 fully certified air traffic controllers—the lowest level in more than 10 years.

The FAA has known for some time that it would have a staffing problem. The majority of its air traffic control workforce was hired in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired 10,438 of them for striking.

Now, 27 years later, these hires are hitting retirement age, and the FAA has launched a number of initiatives to recruit and, in some cases, retain key staff in high-traffic areas, officials say. The agency aims to hire more than 15,000 air traffic controllers in the next decade.

By establishing more face-to-face contact with new recruits and increasing manager training, the agency believes it can deflect the increasingly loud criticism lodged by the air traffic controllers union.

FAA officials insist they are seeing progress. In its last call for controllers, the FAA attracted more than 3,000 candidates, says Karen Johnson, executive director, HR management field operations. In the last fiscal year, the agency hired more than 1,800 controllers, exceeding its target of 1,300. And the FAA hired 60 percent more controllers last year than in 2006, Johnson says.

But even if the FAA’s HR staff can replace controllers as quickly as they are losing them—which remains to be seen—the bigger morale issues are going to take longer to fix, experts say.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents 14,800 controllers and trainees, has a new card that it is playing with as much fanfare as possible: It is questioning whether the staffing shortage is affecting public safety.

"We had 1,600 controllers leave last year, and many more are expected to leave next year because of how the employees are being treated," says Patrick Forrey, president of the union. "Either we are going to have a major accident or the system will have to be slowed down, which will add to the demise of an already struggling airline industry."

As long as FAA management has such a contentious relationship with the union, it’s going to be impossible for the agency to have the most talented and engaged controller workforce that it can, says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, which with American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation annually publishes "The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government," a list providing rankings of 222 government agencies.

Last year, the FAA came in at 204 among the 222 agencies. "The FAA simply can’t afford to not have well-qualified and engaged controllers," Palguta says. "They need them to carry out the mission and prevent mishaps."

Cultural Challenges
    Many observers thought that 1981 was the low point for relations between FAA management and the union, which at the time was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. But it seems that the relationship between the FAA and the NATCA, the successor to PATCO, has come close to that nadir in the past few years.

The acrimony stems from a breakdown in negotiations in July 2006, when after 15 months of talks the agency implemented salary caps for new hires, a pay freeze for veteran controllers and a host of work rules that former controllers and union officials say were designed to make their already difficult jobs even more stressful.

The FAA implemented strict mandates on sick leave and vacations, imposed a new dress code and put an end to a contractual protection that said controllers couldn’t work a radar screen for more than two hours without a break.

"I worked behind a gate with armed guards in a dark room that had no exposure to the public and they were telling me that I had to wear Dockers and penny loafers, just because my boss wanted me to," says Ray Gibbons, an air traffic controller who retired in October 2007 after 25 years on the job. "It really hurt morale."

FAA officials counter that the purpose of the dress code was to establish a professional environment.

"[Union] rhetoric may be all about how they are being treated, but when they go to Capitol Hill it's all about pay. They say one thing and then do another. Every initiative they have gotten behind is about pay."
—Jim Trinka, technical training director, FAA

"As a manager, I would characterize those rules as a reflection that this is a highly regarded profession, and that was management’s intent with the work rules," says Jim Trinka, technical training director for the FAA.

Outsiders, including members of Congress, often visit the towers, so it makes sense to ask controllers to dress in business-casual attire, says Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

For all of the union’s protests about the work rules, their real issue is the pay caps, whether the union will admit it or not, Trinka says.

"Their rhetoric may be all about how they are being treated, but when they go to Capitol Hill it’s all about pay," he says. "They say one thing and then do another. Every initiative they have gotten behind is about pay."

Whatever the core of the grievances, the fact remains that morale has gotten worse since the 2006 impasse, former controllers and observers of the agency say.

"I have dealt with controllers and there is a lot of hatred toward management," says one academic who has studied the agency but didn’t want to be named. "It’s unnatural."

Employee morale was already bad at the agency in 2006. In that year’s Employee Attitude Survey, 43 percent of FAA employees surveyed said they were very dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with their organization as a place to work.

While the survey is based on responses from a random sampling of 10,000 employees throughout the agency, former controllers say that statistic is probably higher for the controller workforce itself.

FAA officials, however, contend that attrition rates among its controller population are low but are rising now because of the demographic issue.

In 2006, 583 of 1,038 controllers who left the agency retired, according to a March 2007 agency report. Last fiscal year, 911 out of 1,622 departures were retirements, according to the NATCA.

"The vast majority of controllers find it a very rewarding career," Trinka says.

The FAA’s Johnson concedes that morale is an issue, but says that employee survey scores for the past 10 years "have been fairly stable and consistent with what you find throughout government."

However, each business division of the agency has created plans to address issues brought up by the surveys, and for HR that means improved manager training, she says.

"Our feeling is that better-trained managers are going to be better managers," she says.

To address this, the FAA has re-instituted mandatory training for new and newly appointed midlevel and senior-level managers. It covers such topics as labor management and leadership training, Johnson says. Every three years, managers have to complete a minimum of 40 hours of training. The agency also has updated its manager training to address current issues, such as dealing with different generations in the workforce, Trinka says.

"We had 1,600 controllers leave last year and many more are expected to leave next year because of how the employees are being treated. Either we are going to have a major accident or the system will have to be slowed down, which will add to the demise of an already struggling airline industry."—Patrick Forrey, president, National Air Traffic Controllers Association

"Melding the generational cultures is a challenge for any organization," he says. So Trinka and his team have been researching the motivators for great performance, regardless of employee age.

"For example, communication is important to employees regardless of what generation they grew up in," he says.

The FAA’s HR team is also busy with another project: implementing performance-based compensation for air traffic controllers. While most of the FAA has been using some kind of pay-for-performance system since the mid-1990s, the controllers are coming under the system just this year.

Under the new program, there will be an annual pay raise, and then each individual is eligible for another raise based on performance, Trinka says.

While moving toward a pay-for-performance platform may help motivate and engage younger workers, it’s going to be a challenge to implement, given the lack of trust that many air traffic controllers feel toward their managers, observers say.

"You have to first establish a level of trust between the managers and the employees before a performance-based pay system can really work," says Palguta from the Partnership for Public Service.

Rebuilding a Workforce
   Establishing a compensation system that rewards performance could help the agency in its recruiting efforts, which is a main focus right now, experts say.

Two years ago, the FAA centralized its recruiting division in Oklahoma City so it could better focus its resources, Johnson says.

The agency also has opened up its recruiting to the public rather than just going through the military, which traditionally has been its main source of candidates, she says.

The agency now is recruiting through an array of job boards, including Monster and CareerBuilder, as well as using print and radio ads to promote the profession, she says.

"Over the last three years, there has been a lot more attention to branding our overall job campaign," she says.

The FAA also has increased its efforts at colleges, where it is working to create approved controller training programs. The FAA has established collegiate training initiatives at 23 schools and expects to have 30 to 35 by the end of the year, Trinka says.

While 20 percent to 25 percent of the agency’s hiring pool in the past came from these colleges and 50 percent to 55 percent came from the military, those ratios have now reversed, Trinka says.

The FAA’s HR staff is also making a more concerted effort to have face-to-face contact with prospective candidates as they go through a hiring process that can take months, Johnson says.

Previously, candidates would have to navigate the system of background checks, drug tests and medical exams on their own. Today, the FAA establishes "pre-employment processing centers" where 100 to 150 candidates are processed in a day. Hiring managers throughout the country come in to personally meet the candidates and answer questions.

"This really helps to create a positive view of the agency for candidates," Trinka says. "They feel like, ‘Oh, they’re really taking care of me and holding my hand through the process.’ "

The new recruitment process also is much more efficient, FAA officials say. Time-to-hire is now two to three months, instead of six to nine months.

The FAA has also focused on making its training more efficient, so that instead of taking three to five years for a controller to become fully certified, it now takes two to three years, Trinka says.

The agency has been able to do this largely by relying on new technologies, like flight simulators and computer-based training, but also by revamping the training to be more focused on competencies, Trinka says.

"We have transitioned from a skill-based training program to supplementing it with a competency-based evaluation system," he says.

Trainees are presented with 13 competencies that a good controller should possess, such as composure and decisiveness, and are then trained to develop those competencies. By setting these expectations, Trinka believes trainees will be more successful.

"Now they know what the standards are from the very beginning," he says.

Union officials, however, counter that the FAA is "hiring off the street" and rushing these new hires through the training process, which is resulting in more operational errors.

A January 18 internal FAA memo from Billy Cook, district quality assurance manager for the agency’s Washington District, links on-the-job training to a 10 percent increase in operational errors throughout the country during the past year.

The FAA, however, maintains that the system continues to be safe and that it’s having no problem attracting qualified candidates.

"I do believe the agency has the safest aviation system in the world," Johnson says.

While the union’s focus on public safety may not have a negative effect on the FAA’s recruiting efforts, it is affecting the agency’s ability to retain controllers, who are convinced that it is only a matter of time before there is an accident, former controllers say.

"There is a pervasive feeling among controllers that ‘I don’t want to be there when it happens,’ " Gibbons says.

The FAA is doing what it can to retain controllers in high-traffic airports where there is a risk of being understaffed, agency officials say.

This year, the agency began offering a formal retention bonus program, by which controllers eligible for retirement can receive as much as $24,000, according to union officials. While the FAA has offered retention bonuses in select cases in the past, this is its first official retention bonus program, Johnson says. The agency would not say how many bonuses it has given out this year.

The problem with offering retention bonuses is that for disgruntled controllers, the issue isn’t just about money, experts say.

"Pay is not a motivator, it’s a satisfier," Palguta says. "If these controllers are convinced that they aren’t being treated fairly, then that’s going to take precedence over their purchasing power."

The power of a bonus is also muted by the fact that controllers hired in the early 1980s can retire today with retirement benefits in the range of $70,000 to $75,000 annually with health benefits, so retaining this workforce may actually be impossible, observers say.

The issue that the FAA’s HR staff must address isn’t how to pay people to get them to stay longer, Palguta says, but to attack the root cause of why they are retiring when they claim to love what they do.

"There are controllers at the FAA who love their jobs," he says. "It’s up to HR to make that the reality for all controllers."

Workforce Management, June 9, 2008, p. 1, 18-21 -- Subscribe Now!

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