Studies of Next Generation Air Traffic Control Specialists: Why Be an Air Traffic Controller?
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Studies of Next Generation Air Traffic Control Specialists: Why Be an Air Traffic Controller?

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      With phrases such as “Managing Millennials” (Gimbel, 2007), descriptions of generational differences are a staple in the human resources (HR) trade press and corporate training. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers a course in managing generational differences through its Center for Management Education and Leadership. Most management tips and descriptions of generational differences are anecdotal, prescriptive and impressionistic. Few empirical studies are available, and those that do exist are based on cross-sectional surveys, confounding the effects of age and career progression with generational differences. Yet the generational comparisons could be important to occupational recruitment; what appealed to one generation might not appeal to another. For example, the job security and stability that appealed to “Baby Boomers” might be less important to “Gen-X” and “Millennials,” who are said to be looking to “make a difference” with some level of “work-family balance” (Partnership for Public Service, 2009, undated). The purpose of the current study was to compare the factors influencing occupational choice in two distinct generations of employees in the FAA’s highly visible air traffic control specialist (ATCS) occupation. We hypothesized that factors such as job security, benefits, and pay would be less important to the “Next Generation” of controllers, recruited from Gen-X and Millennials, than to the “Post-Strike” generation (largely Baby Boomers) and non-material factors such as the opportunity to benefit others would be more important to the Next Generation of controllers. Method. The responses of controllers hired in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 (n=955) were compared to those of controllers hired in FY1986 through FY1992 (n=13,227) following the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. The two groups did not overlap in age or birth year. The new controllers in both generations took the Biographical Questionnaire (BQ) for research purposes while at the FAA Academy for initial occupational training. The BQ includes 14 items asking to what degree material factors such as pay and non-material factors such as the opportunity to benefit others were important to their choice of the controller occupation. The proportions favorably endorsing each factor were compared with a standard Z-test of proportions. The rank-order of the factors in each generation was also compared using Spearman’s rho. Results. Contrary to our hypothesis, job security, benefits, and pay were more important to Next Generation than to Post-Strike controllers. However, the overall rank-order correlation of the factors by generation was high (Spearman’s rho =.824, p < .001), suggesting a shift in degree rather than one of kind between generations. Discussion. The young Next Generation controllers hired by the FAA did not conform to the public stereotype; job security, benefits, and pay were just as important to them, if not more, than to the previous generation. This might be an effect of economic insecurity engendered by the 2007-2010 financial crisis in the U.S. The similar rank-ordering of factors influencing occupational choice suggests more similarity between generations than might be expected on the basis of the HR trade press. Implications for agency recruitment are considered in closing.
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