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Editorial: Minding the Gap

October 11, 2011  By Matt Nicholls

Hiring qualified workers and finding ways to retain those who consistently exceed expectations is a top concern for operators – and it was a key discussion point at Helicopters’ first industry roundtable this spring.

Hiring qualified workers and finding ways to retain those who consistently exceed expectations is a top concern for operators – and it was a key discussion point at Helicopters’ first industry roundtable this spring.

For many, impending staffing issues will put a serious strain on their firms, especially smaller operations where longtime, dedicated employees wear multiple hats and live and breathe the company brand.

Jimmy Emond, operations manager for Panorama Helicopters in Alma, Que., understands the challenges when it comes to training and retaining staff. His firm boasts a small fleet of 12 and competes in a tough market for government and mining contracts. Attracting competent team members, specifically pilots with sufficient experience, is critical to staying competitive – especially when competitors are also taking steps to enhance operations.

“For us, retaining staff is very important because pilots make the job a success – and it ensures customers keep coming back. That’s why we are paying maybe more than other Quebec-based operators,” Emond said. “But to keep your personnel, you have to give them an opportunity to fly. If business is slow, sometimes they will be looking around . . . and the other companies are aggressive, too.”


While finding experienced pilots is paramount, it’s only part of the equation. As Walter Heneghan, VP of safety and quality at Canadian Helicopters, pointed out, the real challenge won’t be finding someone to fly the aircraft, it will be keeping it fit to take to the skies. It’s a point correspondent David Carr expands upon in “The Skill Quotient,” pg 26.

“Operators aren’t having much difficulty finding pilots today,” Heneghan said. “But there’s an awful lot of AMEs over the age of 50, and I personally think the big crisis in our industry is not going to be driven by a lack of pilots; it’s going to be driven by the lack of qualified AMEs.”

Providing sufficient educational opportunities and getting the right candidates into the pipeline will be imperative to fill the void, and the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) tried to do just that at this year’s conference. HAC offered discount rates for students and catered some sessions to the younger set, including, “Green Pilots and Engineers, What Do Employers Want?” Look for more educational opportunities for developing members of the industry in the future.

“It was a way to help people get into our industry,” said HAC president/CEO Fred Jones. “Recently, the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace (CCAA) completed its flight crew study. What was clear from that study was it’s not a number shortage, it’s a qualified individual shortage – and getting people to fit the job more quickly. We need to bridge the gap between the student that graduates from school and how they move into the industry.”

A follow-up study by the CCAA will help both colleges and flight schools better develop curricula to meet industry standards and help graduates better fit with what industry requires faster.

Offering developing pilots opportunities to enhance skills will also help fill the void. Bob Toews, senior pilot at STARS, said that, while it’s harder to find an ATPLH 3,000-hour plus, multi-crew experienced pilot that can quickly slot into a captain’s seat, there is an opportunity to implement other options such as a two-pilot system.

“As the EMS operations expand in Canada – and I have heard rumours about increasing interest in two-pilot operations in oil and gas – I think we will have a new opportunity we haven’t had before in the helicopter industry to start moving low-time pilots through as co-pilots,” he said. “Then the challenge is to figure out some way to feed them back into the industry so they can get the pilot-in-command, bush experience.”

In the past, STARS has offered co-pilots up to a 12-month leave of absence to get that experience. They offer them time off, maintain their benefits, don’t pay them, but “we give them a chance to get back in the industry and work for another operator. Sometimes, they don’t come back, they enjoy getting out on their own so much that they keep on doing it and that’s great.

“But it’s a win-win situation because when we get them back, they will probably be in a better position to get upgraded in a slot. I think there are synergies there and I think we can work creatively with the rest of industry to figure out how to upgrade these pilots.”

Whatever the solution, this much is clear: creativity will be needed to fill the staffing voids looming on the horizon.


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