A new IATA Aviation Human Resources Report published this week reveals that customer service jobs in aviation will be in high demand over the coming years but that airlines are finding it hard to attract the right sort of candidate.
The report is based on a study conducted by Circle Research of more than 100 human resources professionals (HRs) at airlines, airports and ground service providers.
While technology is playing an important role in reshaping the industry, automating check-in processes and offering passengers more self-service options, three-in-four (73%) of HRs interviewed for IATA believe jobs in customer service are still expected to grow over the next two years.
Looking into the medium term, 70% expect growth over the next 10 years.
Automation will continue to impact the workplace and the nature of customer service will change.
Some 68% of HR professionals predict that customer self-service options on passenger mobile phones will ease staffing demands and 59% expect that in-airport self-service will change the nature of work for airline staff.
But a combination of more passengers, and higher expectations from these passengers for personal service, will result in new roles for customer service agents that free them from desks and allow them to interact with customers at any point in the journey.
Brendan Noonan, vice president of talent development for Qatar Airways Group, told IATA:
“With new technology, I don’t think customer service professionals will ever become obsolete; instead, their roles will change. Often people talk about how the check-in agent will disappear as technology takes over and allows the customer to check themselves in. But what you will still need is people available to guide and help the customer and to advise them when they need help. Technology on its own is not enough to provide excellent customer care.
“As an airline, we need to find out where the new touchpoints are that we can bring in customer service to support and complement technology to make the overall customer experience quicker and more enjoyable.”
The rise of social media places a new burden on airlines to monitor customer conversations, IATA says, which in turn creates new jobs at airlines.
The report says:
“Technology also opens up new customer service channels. Queries and complaints continue to migrate away from in-airport desks and phone lines, through websites and emails, and on to social media and mobile communication apps like Twitter and WhatsApp. Who would have predicted a decade ago that Twitter would now be the most prevalently-used platform for airline customer relations?
“These new platforms are 24/7. [They] not only enable comments to be made but also make these comments instantly available to the wider public (and therefore potential news stories and brand influencers).
"As such, they must be constantly monitored and managed by highly skilled customer service professionals.”
However, the skill sets needed for the jobs ahead are challenging in unexpected ways. Airlines report that it is relatively easy to find candidates who now have basic digital skills, but complex service, care and problem-solving skills are rarer and more difficult to train.
Darlene Marmelic, director of learning and development, WestJet Airlines says:
“From an operations perspective, the skills we need to see an increase in, regardless of level and role, are critical thinking and situational awareness. As automation and self-service take on simpler jobs, we need staff to be able to deal with more complex scenarios. This is what we’re looking for when hiring staff, but it’s also becoming an increasingly important part of our training.
“For example, in cabin crew, it is becoming a focus both during initial training and then it’s re-enforced in annual training. We’re introducing more scenario-based learning to ensure staff have the skills to react and respond to these increasingly complex situations.”
The changing nature of customer service is causing staff who never had to interact with customers before to learn to do so, generating demand for new training programs and methodologies.
Airlines report 18% annual turnover of staff in customer service which increases the need for better screening for aptitude and better training for retention, according to IATA.
“Customer service is the single biggest area where we’ll need new skills sets in the coming years. There is an expectation level from customers and we have to meet that. But when you look at new entrants to the workforce, many don’t have the necessary courtesies or customer service skills. So, we have to rebuild them. We have to help them become more focused on the needs of our customers. It’s about training people in the right way, using the right technologies, and re-building people to be more service-orientated.”
Airlines will turn to technology to address some of the recruiting and training challenges ahead, with online tests and video interviews as well as virtual or augmented reality training tools.
Despite advancements in digital and automation—or perhaps because of them—jobs in IT will be less difficult for airlines to fill than customer service roles in future. Administrative and management jobs are at risk of redundancies from cost-reduction initiatives, which will require airline staff to “upskill” and transform their role in the organization for greater “value-add” functions. IATA found:
- 57% of HR managers expect there will be fewer people working in management
- 61% expect that more efficient practices will reduce the number of people working in finance & accounting
People who like people are the luckiest people in the airline workforce of tomorrow. Critical thinkers and problem solvers who can interact well with others will do well too.