The Air Traffic Control Association Annual conference explored three tracks representing the major pillars of reinventing the global airspace: innovation, policy and integration. However, sitting in the final general session, “If You Think Infrastructure is Mundane, You’re Not Paying Attention,” I was surprised when the conversation turned to the aviation workforce, or rather, the “new” workforce.”
That was the last thing I expected in a conversation about infrastructure. Then I realized that this was a dominant conversation point in every session that I attended over the three-day conference. I dare say it was the dark horse theme of ATCA Annual (I noticed the future buzzword “workforce” being used much more than “NextGen.”)
When I attended my first ATCA Annual five years ago, the aviation workforce was sort of an ancillary topic. This year’s focus shows how much the conversation has progressed. Because aren’t most advances really about the people behind them? Modernizing the technology driving the National Airspace System is a moot point without also updating the ways we train and utilize the people running it.
“It’s a challenge attracting a younger workforce on an infrastructure that’s old,” said Steve Reynolds of the FAA. “We need that to keep moving – to keep [the younger workforce] in front of new technologies – that’s the key to innovating.”
While five to 10 years ago, working side by side with Young Aviation Professionals was more of a novelty; now, the aging infrastructure, combined with an aging workforce, is on the brink of hitting a crisis level. In the “Embracing the New Workforce Reality” ATCA panel session, moderator Lisa Sullivan of Harris Corporation, opened by polling the audience on their generation. I was surprised to see the audience breakdown was fairly evenly split at 35 percent baby boomer generation (1946 – 1964), 32 percent Gen X (1965 – 1979), and 32 percent millennial. Sullivan pointed to three areas that will drive our new workforce: diversity, recruitment and retention.
“We need to find new ways to inspire young people,” said Katie Pribyl, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in the aviation workforce session. “Industry needs to become more flexible. We need to discover new ways to train.”
As FAA Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer Teri Bristol pointed out during ATCA, the agency already is working this issue. The northeast corridor has long been a top priority for the FAA and the NextGen Advisory Committee, and they’ve implemented specialized training at facilities with complex environments like New York terminal radar approach control facility, also known as N90. The FAA added TETRA courses to academy training in Oklahoma City that are geared to specific facilities. They’ve automated curriculums and issue every student an iPad for lab training. Thirty-five of this new generation of ATC trainees is already at N90. It’s why ATCA awarded the FAA and NATCA the ATCA Annual Team Award for Outstanding Achievement during the conference.
“It’s a different generation coming through the system,” said Bristol, adding that these measures have reduced training time by 23 percent. “We knew we needed to change the training program, or it was all for nothing. People are learning differently.”
“We have a lot of work that needs a workforce,” said Reynolds. “I think we have so much work to do and not enough people. We will [eventually need to] have positions repurposed and moved.”
So, while ATCA’s intention was to have three separate tracks at the Annual conference, an overarching conversation about our industry’s new aviation workforce ended up binding the entire conference together.