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The Hunt for First Flying Jobs

The boom is on! "Help Wanted" signs are posted nationwide for pilots. Everyone-from the local flight school at your hometown airport to the biggest of the big airlines and bizjet operators-is looking for pilots. Plenty of factors have contributed to the dramatic rise in demand for flight personnel on all rungs of the career ladder over the last five years. Among the forces at work are the massive number of retiring pilots at the major airlines; the exodus of military pilots and the armed services' inability to replace them; the insatiable public demand for business and personal travel spawning upstart airlines and creative business options such as fractional ownership programs; a robust economy; and the simple fact that flight training was down in the early 1990s, resulting in fewer qualified pilots. The best news is that the current hiring blitz is expected to continue at least until 2005.

Hiring potential has rarely been better, but there are some caveats. Here is a sobering bulletin for those graduating from an aviation college with a fresh degree and a wallet full of pilot certificates; for the many who have invested enough money in training to purchase a tidy home in the suburbs; and for the mid-lifer contemplating a career shift and about to max out the credit card at the local flying school. Aviation is still a very competitive career track littered with pilots who end up as bankers and sales reps because they could not grasp the realities of their chosen field. They failed to recognize the unique realities of launching a flight career.

First of all, you must understand that aviation is a dues-paying industry. Much like a physician, a well-paid flying professional has invested years in the minor leagues. Just as a medical school graduate is destined to serve as an intern and then resident before making the big bucks, the aspiring professional flyer must also serve an internship at long hours and low pay. It is the exceptionally fortunate individual who can circumvent the system. Thus, the first entry-level flight position as a commercial pilot may be as a flight instructor or banner-tower, steering a jump plane for local parachutists, or flying a small aircraft for a tool-and-dye company in Kansas. Then it's on to charter operations and light twins. Next to the commuter airlines or small companies flying turboprops. Then, about five to eight years down the road, you might reach the big time-piloting jets. This is when the financial rewards finally arrive. Yes, there are exceptions to the normal course, but they are relatively few.

It's also important to remember that aviation is a business. Although most of us get into flying for the fun and emotional satisfaction of it, we are all components of the air transportation industry. Thus, we should approach our career choices and the job hunt in a businesslike manner.

Career success takes planning. Although there are aviators who get lucky by being at the right place at the right time, most of us need to develop a game plan to snag that first job as a pilot.

For the vast majority of pilots who hold a commercial pilot certificate with 250 hours in the logbook, locating that initial flying position will require a serious job hunt, using one or more of four basic job search techniques.

Direct Mail Marketing

This technique is the most basic of all job search tactics. The idea is simple-flood the market with resumes and hope for the best. The process is best described as shooting in the dark. Although it is not the ideal way to look for a job, it is a method that many fledgling pilots must rely upon, especially if they have not yet built up a network of industry contacts.

When pursuing this strategy, most job-hunters fail to recognize that they are becoming direct-mail marketers. When companies market their products or services using direct mail, the response rate hovers around 3 percent. This means that for every 100 catalogs stuffed into mailboxes across the country by a single firm, only about three recipients will purchase anything. Nonetheless, mail-order enterprises earn millions of dollars this way.

To make this technique as effective as possible, begin by defining the target. When I present aviation career workshops at colleges throughout the country, I typically pose this question: "Where will you be 90 days after graduation?" The most common response is, "I dunno. I guess I'll get a job flight instructing somewhere." That's not good enough. Without a clear goal, there is no way to develop a job-search plan.

A better answer would be, "I'd like to be an instructor for a flight school teaching under Part 141 of the federal aviation regulations in the state of Colorado. I would prefer a collegiate environment."

Once the goal has been set, begin researching institutions that can offer the type of job you want. In this case, they include AIMS Community College, Emery Aviation College, Northwestern Colorado Community College, and Metropolitan State College. Search the Internet for Web sites, addresses, and contact names for each potential employer. Develop a cover letter and resume. Mail them.

Remember that 3-percent re-sponse rate. For any real chance at success, you will need to send at least 100 application packets into the employer marketplace. You hope to reach the decision maker who has just lost a superb CFI and is in desperate need of a replacement. You want to reach the employer who is hiring right now.

Developing a mailing list can be a daunting task. Try devising an A list and a B list. Of the 100 names and addresses you have obtained from Internet sites, airport directories, and other commercially available sources (for example, the Aviation Telephone Directory), choose the 20 employers for whom you most want to work. Personalize your cover letters to these schools. Address the letter to the person who is in a position to hire you. For the other 80 possibles, send out a generic cover letter.

So, you've done it. You've shipped 100 manila envelopes with professionally constructed cover letters and resumes, but nobody has called. Then you call. Follow up. At the very least, contact everybody on the A list. Build a rapport. Perhaps there are no openings today. However, someone might submit a resignation tomorrow, and you want to be on that employer's mind when a position unexpectedly becomes available.

Responding

This is the technique for the hunter who surfs the Internet for clues as to where the jobs are hidden and borrows, pilfers, or subscribes to every publication containing help-wanted ads.

It seems that every day at least one new aviation employment service sets up shop in cyberspace. Although it is impossible to begin to list all of the addresses, a simple stop at some of the Web's major aviation servers is a good starting point. Peruse Web sites such as (www.aopa.org), (www.landings.com), (www.aero.com), (www.avweb.com), and (www.avhome.com).

There are also several excellent printed media job sources. Air Jobs Digest and Aviation Employment Monthly routinely feature pages of entry-level flying positions. Additionally, Trade-A-Plane and the numerous regional Flyer and Aviator tabloids display ads from eager employers searching for aircraft piloting talent.

The secret to responding to a job advertisement is the cover letter. In some instances, you may be replying to a blind box number and have no clue as to the name of the company.

A well-constructed cover letter will tell the reader what job you are applying for, why are you qualified, and why you want the job. It should also have a call to action.

You need to immediately capture the interest of the prospective employer. One way to do this is drop a familiar name at the outset. "Bill Jones, a mutual acquaintance and assistant chief instructor with your school, suggested that I submit my application for an entry-level flight instructor position."

By the time the potential employer gets to the second paragraph, he should have no doubt that you are qualified. "A review of my resume will show that I hold CFI, CFII, and MEI flight instructor ratings. I have more than 300 hours of flight time and 45 hours of dual instruction given while serving an internship with the Joe Dokes University flight department, a FAR 141 school."

The third segment of your cover letter is pure sell. "Bill has recommended your school as an excellent environment to learn and grow. I believe that my aviation educational background at Joe Dokes University, my previous experience in customer service positions within the food industry, and my prior work as a flight instructor with a 100-percent practical test pass rate for my students, demonstrate that I would be an ideal candidate for your organization."

The final segment-the call to action-goes something like this: "I would welcome an opportunity to interview with you at your earliest convenience. Your telephone response would be most appreciated at 555-5555. However, if your schedule should preclude your contacting me, please accept my phone call next week."

Cold Calling

This tactic takes stamina and intestinal fortitude. Put on the finest duds, secure a few dozen resumes in the back seat of the car, and head out to the target area. Knock on doors.

An acquaintance of mine graduated from Emery Aviation College several years ago without one contact in his address book. Frustrated at getting no response to his direct mail, he donned his best sportcoat and tie and aimed at Columbia, South Carolina. After visiting several flight schools, he was welcomed into one FBO. The thirtysomething chief pilot appreciated the lad's determination. He said, "Look. I'd like you to meet the owner next Tuesday." By the time that meeting ended, he had earned a job as a flight instructor and first officer with the company Beech King Air.

Of course, the best time to cold-call is when you're not looking for a job. Aspiring professionals who are still months away from launching the job search should consider taking a cold-call trek to the most interesting potential employers. If northern California flight schools are attractive first stops on the career ladder, plan a vacation to that area. Visit airports. Hangar-fly with the locals. Collect business cards. In most instances, operators will be delighted to chat when they are not faced with the unsavory task of turning someone down for a job. These people can be your best contacts when the job search gets going.

Networking

Who you know matters at least as much as what you know. Building a network of aviation business contacts and friends is not an overnight task, but it is a process that you should pursue from the first day of flight training.

Consider this scenario. A flight school owner loses a veteran instructor to the cockpit of a commuter airplane. Before that person places an ad, or exhumes the file of dusty resumes, or consults college placement offices, he or she is apt to go to another CFI on staff and say, "Do you know somebody for this job?"

This same pattern is repeated at all levels of the aviation career spectrum. Talk with a corporate pilot, a commuter captain, a medevac pilot, or a flying law enforcement officer, and you will hear the same story-it's who you know.

Unfortunately, many fledgling pilots have been sequestered for years at a college or airport without regular contact with the real world. Once cut loose from the training nest, they find themselves alone. But it doesn't have to be that way.

During training, meet as many professionals as possible. Work part-time as line support at the big airport. Attend industry conventions. Enroll in AOPA Air Safety Foundation Flight Instructor Refresher Courses and have lunch with fellow attendees, many of whom may be chief pilots. Stay in contact with your peers and instructors.

Most importantly, stick to it. You may be blessed and find that first job with the first application. But employment consultants say that it is not unusual to search for six months before landing that first slot. Do not give up. Aviation is the place to be, and the effort will be worth it.

By Wayne Phillips

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