Friday, February 09, 2007

Landing the Job, Part III

Contacts, References, and Recommendations

A common misconception among newcomers to aviation is that airlines and other potential employers hire the most qualified, most experienced pilots. The reality is that while most employers have minimum qualifications to apply, those pilots chosen to interview are often picked based on who they know rather than how many hours they have. In this career, networking is everything - especially when the job market is tight.

I didn't come to this realization until I'd been flying commercially for a while. One of my biggest career regrets is that I didn't put more energy into networking early on. I've met many pilots who'd be in a position to help me if I'd made the effort to stay in touch. At the time, they might say "give me a call if you're interested in flying for UPS" and I'd think Suuure, with all of my 150 hours! It was very shortsighted of me. It's never too early to start networking.

In my last post I described how to start preparing for application at the same time you begin the job hunt. Simultaneously, you'll want to begin organizing and working the contacts you've made over the years.

Organizing Your Contacts

It's not a bad idea to keep a list or file of contacts from Day One of your aviation career. If you haven't yet, now's a fine time to start. The first step is to make a list of every single person you know who works in aviation, whether they appear to be in a position to help you or not. Consider who you know in each of the following categories:
  • Personal friends
  • Family and family friends
  • Current and former coworkers
  • Former supervisors
  • Former flight instructors
  • Old college or military buddies
  • Random acquaintances (ride in a friendly Delta pilot's jumpseat lately?)
After you've written down the names of all your potential contacts, make a file using 4 x 6 cards. Alternatively, create a computer database. On each 4 x 6 card, write your contact's name, last known address and phone number, email address, employer, and position. Make a note of how you know the person, when you met them, and how well you know them. Have they flown with you? As you write this information down, consider how each contact might be best suited to help you. Some possible roles your contacts might play:
  • Telling you about job openings
  • Giving you specific advice for applying to a particular company
  • Serving as a reference
  • Writing a letter of recommendation
  • Walking in your resume to HR or the Chief Pilot
  • Facilitating a meeting with the person in charge of hiring
  • Sponsoring you, at companies with "silver bullet" programs
The role each contact plays will be a function of their proximity to the people in charge of hiring as well as how well they know you. That Delta pilot whose jumpseat you rode in last week would probably be happy to tell you more about how their hiring process works, but it'd be rather rash to ask him to write a letter of recommendation.

Working Your Contacts

At the same time that you start looking for job openings, you should work through your contact list, giving each person a call, letter, or email. If it's been a while since you've talked to some of your contacts, you may have to do some digging for updated phone numbers or addresses. I've found the FAA certificated airman database a useful tool, although it only gives you addresses. Use this initial call to catch up with your contact. Let them know you're looking for a job and ask if they've heard of any openings (at their company or elsewhere). If you know the person well, ask them if they'd be willing to serve as a reference or write a letter of recommendation once you know where you're applying. If you don't know them well or if you haven't talked to them in a long time, you're probably better off just having a friendly conversation, and if they feel like helping you, they'll likely volunteer.

After this initial contact, stay in touch with your contacts - particularly those who appear to be potentially useful. Every time you talk with a contact, make a note of it on their card.

Lining Up References

Many employers with a formal application process require that you list three or more references on your application. You can decide who to list well ahead of time. In general, you should have at least one personal and two professional references. It's best if your professional references are in a position of authority - former supervisors, chief pilots, and check airmen are excellent - and they should be people you've known for some time. Many companies require that you've known one reference for at least 10 years. You might use different references for different applications, particularly if you can list somebody who works at your target company.

You should have your references' foreknowledge and approval before you list them on any application. Nobody likes getting blindsided with a call from your potential employer. This should go without saying, but make sure your references actually like you and know enough about you to be able to convincingly say good things about you.

You'll usually need to list your references' names, addresses, phone/fax numbers, email addresses, and how long you've known them.

Letters of Recommendation

A good letter of recommendation can make all the difference between your application getting noticed or languishing in the "cold cases" file. Here are a few guidelines for letters of recommendation:
  • Letters from current employees of your target company are the most valuable. The longer they've been there, the better. Best of all are letters from check airmen or other management pilots. Granted, not all of us are close friends with check airmen at Southwest... if the only person you know there is a ramper, a letter still can't hurt!
  • Retirees can also have significant pull at many companies.
  • Letters from former bosses are good. Every time I've left a job, I've asked my boss for a letter of recommendation. They can attest to your work ethic and job performance.
  • You should try to have at least one letter from somebody you've flown with. A few companies even require multiple letters attesting to your flying skills. Again, a letter from an ex-coworker who is now a line pilot at your target company is best. If you don't know any well enough to ask them for a LOR, ask any pilot you've flown with a lot, or better yet, a check airman you've taken checkrides with.
  • A letter specific to your target company is better than a generic letter. Give your letter-writer the name and address of the person in charge of hiring, assuming you know who this is (see Part 1).
  • It's not uncommon for potential letter-writers to say, "Just write the letter yourself and then I'll sign it." If you ghost-write your own LOR, go easy on the exuberance and don't gush about yourself. Keep it honest and low-key.
  • LORs should be written in business style and have a professional appearance. Be prepared to show your writer how to do this if they've never written business letters (you'd be surprised).
  • Proofread the letter thoroughly. If there are mistakes in spelling, grammar, or formatting, tactfully point them out to your letter-writer and ask them to correct it. You may get a letter beyond saving. I once got a letter from an ex-boss that was almost incomprehensible due to a tragic combination of misspellings, run-on sentances, non-sequiters, and colloquialisms. It was also in all caps. I thanked the writer gracefully and promptly trashed the letter. Using it would have been a very bad reflection on myself.
The "Silver Bullet"

The surest way to get an interview is personal effort by an employee at your target company. A Letter of Recommendation is only one way they act on your behalf. If you know the employee well enough, here are some other ways they might help you out.

Several airlines have a formal program known as the "Silver Bullet" (Alaska, Frontier) or sponsorship (FedEx, CAL) through which a current line pilot can move your resume to the top of the stack. Each pilot normally has a single bullet or sponser slot to use each year, so it's a big deal for them to use it on you.

Even at companies lacking a formal silver bullet program, an employee walking in your resume often has the same effect of sending you to the top of the list. This is particularly true at corporate flight departments...many don't even look at resumes unless they're walked in by current pilots.

After walking in your resume, the employee may be able to continue to bring attention to it by delivering updates or simply talking to the chief pilot or HR person every few weeks. Sometimes a simple reminder from an employee makes the difference.

If all else fails, the employee may be able to facilitate a meeting with somebody who has hiring "pull." This is how I got the interview at my current company. A buddy gave me a tour of our Ops Center, we ran into an assistant chief pilot, my buddy introduced us, and the assistant chief gave my information to the guy in charge of interviews. I got called a few days later. Five minutes of face-to-face accomplished what nine months of updated resumes, phone calls with HR, and several employee letters of recommendation did not.

In Closing...

Networking really is often the most important aspect of getting a flying job. At some companies, it's the way to get a job. Treat the process of building contacts as importantly as the process of earning certificates and building hours. Then, when you're hunting for a job, use those contacts to your advantage. Finally, be willing to help others in their job hunts any way you can. Karma is strong in aviation.

Next Post: Putting together a strong resume.

PS - I'm not at all adverse to using this blog as a way to gain contacts! I'd love email, you can find my address in my profile.


Anonymous said...

That's great advice for any industry, knowing people is the best way to get any job.

Kazaril said...

Hi!I recently asked myself How I should be asking for a letter of recommendation or si it a good practice to ask a colleague or I have used tips from this site.