Firing Up the Talent Engines at One of the World’s Largest Airlines

BY Wanly Chen | May 22, 2024

When the pandemic hit, businesses and offices began to shut down operations for a rare moment of stagnancy. The travel industry especially took a drastic hit: flights were near-empty as people stayed home. 

For one airline, however, the pause was the optimal time to expand. In the first few years of the pandemic, United Airlines hired over 30,000 employees, a decision that differed from many other industries at that time. 

“​​In the months of the pandemic, we pre-hired in a couple of areas, pilots in particular, because of the long training timelines,” Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources and labor relations at United Airlines, said in a fireside chat at From Day One’s Chicago conference. “That was not something that we had historically ever done, but in the first few years of the pandemic, we hired 15,000 people each year for two years.”

The choice to increase hiring during the pandemic was ultimately the right move, Gebo says. Revenge travel led to high post-pandemic flight demands and with a shortage of pilots on the horizon, airlines needed to take advantage of every moment to prepare, Gebo told session moderator Stefan Holt, an anchor at NBC5 News

Kate Gebo, Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Labor Relations at United Airlines, was interviewed in the fireside chat      

She reflected on how United Airlines stayed ahead of the game during the pandemic and the strategies she takes to ensure United stays in front. “When we looked at the pandemic, we asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to stay the same or are we going to take this as an opportunity and grow?’” Gebo said. “We didn’t want to come out where we came in, we wanted to jump ahead.”

Fueled by early retirement and an aging pilot population, analysts predict the global aviation industry will be short by 80,000 pilots by 2032. The shortage is a dire situation for airlines as they look to expand. At United, taking learning opportunities in-house became a valuable resource for talent and employees.

“We don't want to just rely on whatever is out there, so we bought our own flight school, United Aviate Academy, in Goodyear, Arizona,” Gebo said. “We wanted to invest and provide world-class training, so you not only learn all the technical issues with flying but also understand the leadership and the culture at United.” 

Being a major airline with its own in-house flight school has its perks. The school builds a pipeline of talent for the airline and increases interest in the aviation industry, Gebo says.

“Many other folks began to believe that they could get into aviation,” Gebo said. “Even though there's a little bit of a struggle because the qualifications and the training are tough, there’s a sense of accomplishment that we’re building here at Aviate Academy.”

For United’s pilots and crew members, learning is still readily accessible to the community through designated training centers, Gebo says. “Our pilots have to go back to the training center every six months to up their qualifications or anytime they change aircraft types so during the pandemic, we decided to invest in a flight training center in Denver for our pilots,” Gebo said. “We can't just decide to hire a flight attendant and have them show up the next day, so we also invested in an in-flight training center in Houston for our flight attendants.”

With heightened scrutiny surrounding Boeing planes, production of the planes is taking longer, affecting airline companies as they wait for delivery of aircrafts. 

To balance the now-abundance of pilots, United has encouraged their pilots to take time off, an announcement that caused some backlash. But unlike other industries, laying off employees isn’t a viable option, Gebo says. 

“Even though Boeing can't deliver an aircraft for us or push delivery of an aircraft, we have already hired those pilots six or nine months ago to make sure we were ready for the original schedule,” Gebo said. “We are oversubscribed on pilots right now and the delay in deliveries is so impactful to us because we are carrying those extra costs.”

Keeping crew members on board is worth it in the long run, Gebo says, reflecting on the company’s choice to hire more during the pandemic.  

“Turning the talent engine off is dangerous to your business because once you shut it down, it’s so hard getting the momentum back up,” Gebo said. “In the dark days when there were only 10,000 passengers, the easy answer would have been to shut it all down, but thank goodness we absolutely didn't.”

Wanly Chen is a writer and poet based in New York City.


RELATED STORIES

Hiring 10,000 Employees a Year With an Eye on the Horizon

If your company struggles with finding a few new employees every year, how would you like to try for thousands? That daunting number isn’t too much for Jason Grosz, Head of Global Talent Acquisition for St. Paul-based clean-water giant Ecolab. During a fireside chat titled “Hiring 10,000 Employees a Year With an Eye on the Horizon,” Grosz talked about how his company recruits workers for its businesses around the world while at the same time investing in its future workforce. Grosz was interviewed by Patrick Kennedy, business reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune at From Day One’s Minneapolis conference.“I once heard the expression ‘glocal’ when it comes to talent acquisition – global with a local twist,” says Grosz, a 19-year Ecolab veteran. “What we’ve tried to do is create a standard structure for hiring, and allow a local version of that to be executed.”Jason Grosz, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Ecolab spoke at From Day One's Minneapolis conference. He was interviewed by Patrick Kennedy, right, Business Reporter at the Star Tribune,Part of finding good employees is presenting your company as a good place to work. But Grosz points out that just saying so doesn’t make it so, and prospective talent can often see through the hype.“We talk about our employee value proposition very intentionally,” he says. “But if you don't deliver on the promise, then it doesn't really mean anything. People figure that out. And that gets out.”Selling the company culture to employment prospects is one thing, but continuing to provide value to workers once they’re on board can be another. To that end, Ecolab tends to match its number of annual hires with a roughly equivalent number of promotions, says Grosz.“We’re actually moving people more than we’re hiring people,” he says. “We use Career Hub and Workday. We’re trying to build a visible internal capability and opportunity marketplace for our people. Our CEO will sift through different talent reviews and hear from our businesses: What’s the landscape of talent? What are the needs? Where are the gaps?”As a measure of how effective such extra effort is, Ecolab’s retention numbers tend to hover around 85 percent, Grosz says. Part of the reason lies with an aggressive approach toward acquisition and adoption of new technologies.“We’re looking for more people in that analytics world, and we’re looking for more people who are comfortable in the A.I. technology space,” says Grosz. “You want people who understand biopharma and bioscience. So we've always had this need to find these distinct, unique types of talent.”Dan Heilman is a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

Dan Heilman | June 13, 2024

Establishing a Well-Being Culture That Actually Works

Wellness has always existed as part of employee health concerns, but the pandemic hyper-focused our attention on the importance of well-being and the needs of workers. Yet, in an era of hybrid work, tighter profit margins, and AI, the range of well-being needs are challenging to meet. Companies are having to learn to do more with less but not lose sight of their employees well-being.“Two things have to be true for a benefit to be used. Number one, the benefit itself has to be designed in a revenue model perspective, meaning the cost has to be incentivized for your employees to use them as much as they possibly can. If the company has a business model where they make more money when less people use it, it will not get used. The second thing I'll say is that we have to focus on the science of behavior change," said Elena Gambon, chief strategy and growth officer at First Stop Health.A panel of business leaders came together to discuss the ins and outs of well-being, and how to create a culture of wellness at From Day One’s Dallas conference. The discussion was moderated by Will Maddox, senior writer for D CEO magazine and editor of D CEO Healthcare.“We’ve given so much permission to say I'm overwhelmed or I’m worried about my well-being or my workload, yet, have we equipped the people that have to handle that?” said Dennie Laney, VP of HR at Associa.Gambon says that at First Stop Health, they use behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg's model for human behavior: B=MAP (Behavior ‘B’ happens when Motivation ‘M’, Ability ‘A’, and a Prompt ‘P’ come together at the same moment).The first thing people need, Gambon says, is motivation. “The pain or the pleasure to act has to be high enough for someone to actually make a change. Second is the ability needs to be there. And for us, that means the service needs to cost $0. For the patient, the time that it takes to get to talk to one of our doctors needs to be minutes. Not hours. Not days. The third prong of that stool is promoting. If you’re not constantly reminding people that you exist in creative ways that resonate with them, no one will remember that it’s there.”Greg Miller, SVP, talent management and human resources, at AccentCare says this idea of prompting and promoting is a good one, but when push comes to shove, wellness gets sacrificed. "I think one real challenge for us and others is how do you really tie wellness and flexibility to tangible business results in ways in which we can talk about them as retention drivers, as attraction drivers."Hope Gladney, global lead of client relationships at AceUp, says you have to meet the individual where they are. “A lot of these programs really need to be done within the flow of work. So I think we really need to understand what it is that each individual needs, and try to tailor benefits that are actually going to meet them in the area where they're going to achieve the most benefit for them personally.”But, Gladney points out, the benefit has to also relate to the overall success of the organization.Covid was especially hard on the healthcare industry because they were the frontline, and there was a lot of panic and silent hardships in the beginning. “A lot of people left the industry because of that,” Miller said. “What we’ve tried to do within healthcare is to create the space to say I'm not okay, I’m scared and I need some help. We’ve tried to better leverage the resources we already had in place like employee assistance programs.”Healthcare is hard and there are still more questions than answers when it comes to supporting a 24/7 industry and social need, says Miller. The 24/7 reality of healthcare doesn't just apply to paid professionals, though. Being a caregiver is something that extends to unpaid work, the family, and your extended support network.Gambon says there’s a full spectrum of caregiving that’s invisibly happening behind the scenes with every healthcare worker.The executive panelists discussed the topic "Establishing a Well-Being Culture That Actually Works" in conversation mdoerated by Will Maddox of D CEO Magazine“All of this unpaid labor that predominantly female identifying individuals [do], not always in the home, whether it's to care for a neighbor or a family member or an aging parent or their own kiddos, who are well or special needs – there's just a full spectrum of caregiving that is happening invisibly behind the scenes. With almost every single employee. How do you make sure that anything you provide to your employees across the board is not only equitable, but available to all members of the family? However the employee defines family?” Gambon said.Understanding your work culture means also understanding your workers and who they are. Meaning there is no one size fits all approach to well-being. Gladney says you have to have self-awareness and understand your own triggers and biases. “When you take an inclusive approach to it, it’s first recognizing that everyone’s well-being journey is uniquely theirs.”Michelle Howard, the diversity and inclusion director at Vizient, says it’s about knowing what kind of organization you have. “People like to say, 'Oh, we have a culture of blank.' But you accidentally created a culture of blank. So understanding truly what your culture is. And then determining, is that what you want? And if it's not, it takes time to move that.”“Often when we think about creating inclusive benefits, we give people what we think is inclusive, and we don't ask them what they want or need. As hard as it is to invest the time and the money to listen and gather data, it is the most important step in creating something of value. I like to say that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, the ‘D’ is both for diversity as well as data. Because it is a science, and a proven science. The more you focus on the individual, the better off they will be,” said Gambon.“Everybody knows the golden rule, right? Treat others how you want to be treated? It is the platinum rule. And you have to tap in to understand what that is," Howard said.Matthew Koehler is a freelance journalist and licensed real estate agent based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, The Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others.

Matthew Koehler | June 11, 2024

Total Well-Being: Optimizing Benefits for a Diverse Workforce

AT&T has consistently championed employee wellness, driven by a team dedicated to the four pillars of well-being: mental, social, physical, and financial. So, when they introduced an on-site doctor for their workforce, it was no surprise given their forward-thinking approach.In a fireside chat, Stacey Marx, AT&T’s senior vice president of total rewards & HR technology, discussed the impact of Covid on corporate well-being and how the company continues to stay ahead in supporting their employees.“That really put a bright light on wellness,” she said at From Day One’s Dallas conference, in conversation with Lauren Crawford, reporter for CBS News Texas.Helping Employees Prioritize Mental HealthThe first step in improving mental health is destigmatizing it, says Marx. “It’s a simple start,” she said. “Talk about it, make it normal, whether that be everyday talk, in big town halls, or employee gatherings.”Once employees realize it’s OK to discuss their mental health, they feel comfortable sharing if they are feeling down, Marx says. She recommends offering online platforms and tools so team members can quickly find help, including virtual appointments with mental health providers.In addition to having an on-site doctor, employees appreciate virtual appointments because they only take up a bit of their time, says Marx. They also give team members in rural areas or other locations without easy access to in-person mental health treatment a way to get the care they need.AT&T also recognizes the importance of social health by giving each employee one day off per year to volunteer. “We encourage them to volunteer with their teams,” Marx said. “Everybody feels great. It’s fun. And we don’t have to take vacation or do it after work.”Caregiver Leave and Family PlanningCaregiver leave and family planning are two popular offerings for AT&T employees. “It is so important to take care of yourself and your family so that you can bring your best self to work,” she said.Stacey Marx of AT&T, left, spoke with Lauren Crawford of CBS News Texas at From Day One's event in DallasTheir leave policy especially critical for those in the sandwich generation, who have children still living at home and aging parents. AT&T employees can take up to three weeks of caregiver leave. Marx says the team members love it because they don’t have to use their vacation time if a loved one is sick or needs surgery. “Vacation time is a sacred time for you to rest and relax and recover,” she said.The company also partners with Maven, which helps young families from fertility education through each trimester of pregnancy and beyond. “Even after you return to work, it helps you have support,” Marx said.Determining the Benefits Your Employees NeedWith so many different benefits available, how can companies choose the ones that are best for them?“We found two cornerstones that you should think about when you’re thinking about well-being,” Marx said. “The first one is putting that employee first and really soliciting feedback, but it’s not just getting the feedback. It’s actually listening to the feedback.”The second step is gathering data. She said that data can come from employee surveys, which she calls the "first line of defense," and focus groups, where companies ask employees who use a particular benefit what they value about it.During annual enrollment, AT&T has robust Q&A sessions “where we get the HR team in the field with the employees to really get that feedback,” Marx said.Communicating With EmployeesIt can take a while for company leaders to feel comfortable talking to employees about benefits, says Marx. It’s best to educate them so they can answer questions from their team. When talking to their teams about benefits, leaders should use “simple, non-HR speak, so people can really find what they’re looking for,” Marx said.One of the best things AT&T has done is giving employees their own personal health care concierge, says Marx. There’s a phone number on the back of their insurance cards that they can call if they are in a challenging situation. “Maybe you got a scary diagnosis and you want to talk to somebody about what is the right next step,” she said. “This team will help you. That’s a real live example of how we put the employee in the center of all our wellness benefits and really design around them.”Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | June 07, 2024