Guest Blog: FAA Goes Backward in Hiring Controllers

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Recently, the FAA changed how it recruits candidates for ATC positions, focusing on hiring candidates from its FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. This may seem logical, but the devil is in the details. Historically, candidates for AT-CTI program were evaluated on their work and educational experience directly related to ATC job functions, but this is no longer the case. Candidates for the AT-CTI program are now selected on much simpler factors. These include whether they have three years of work experience (any, not necessarily related to ATC or even aviation jobs), can they speak English and on their completion of a "biographical" survey.

Candidates who historically would have been given credit toward selection based on ATC-related experience or degrees from aviation colleges are now on the same footing as someone who worked for three years at a fast food restaurant. In essence, experience doesn't seem to matter anymore.  Candidates go into a virtual lottery and their biographical survey is the selection process. And it appears that candidates who are scoring very high on the historical measures for competency (the AT-SAT test) are not getting past the biographical survey. Competency doesn't seem to be the measure here.

The result is that candidates who are academically qualified aren't getting selected for the FAA AT-CTI program and it appears the washout rate since this change in hiring practices is increasing rapidly, at the taxpayer's expense, in my view. Candidates who had previously completed collegiate training programs at their own expense are now finding themselves unqualified based on the biographical survey, leaving their personal investment in training wasted and the cost to train candidates who passed the biographical survey but have no aviation background to be trained by the FAA at taxpayer’s expense.

This seems backward to me. Estimates of the value of collegiate training programs providing ATC training suggest that it has saved tens of millions of dollars in the past, but apparently we are throwing that away now. In effect, this makes  all of the degree programs offered by collegiate programs null and void. Why would I bother to do a degree in a program that won't make any difference in whether I get hired?

In the FAA's document "A Plan for the Future: 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce 2012-2021" (PDF), the FAA notes that, "Deploying a well-trained and well-staffed air traffic control workforce plays an essential role..." It is just my opinion, but I have to think hiring candidates who have already had a background of training from colleges or universities with long standing aviation-related air traffic control programs goes a long way toward fulfilling this goal.

The hiring process portion of the FAA document indicates three major categories of hiring sources. Previous controllers; Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) students and, last, the general public. These are specifically identified as individuals who are not required to have prior air traffic control experience. These, however, are the same applicants who are offered an opportunity to enter the FAA AT-CTI training program. This is where the problem begins.

It appears that applicants from the general public are given the same consideration as applicants who have formal collegiate training in ATC degree programs. In essence, an applicant to the FAA's AT-CTI training program who has no ATC-related training (but has three years work experience at any job) and an applicant who has a degree in air traffic control will be given the same chance at being hired. The selection factor that’s then applied is based on a biographical survey the applicants complete, not their applicable training background or skill set they bring to the job.

I can't help but be concerned that the changes in this selection process will bring negative effects to our aviation infrastructure. Candidates who were previously motivated to seek out and pay for their own training to become the best-qualified candidates for the FAA AT-CTI  program completion have lost that motivation. Their investment in this type of training only to hope they make it through a biographical survey would be a big gamble. The result is that we will get applicants from the general public with little or no relevant educational background. The lowest common denominator will get through. I don't think I want the lowest common denominator controlling the aircraft in our nation's airspace. And I don't think I want us spending taxpayer dollars on a program that has a high washout rate because it didn't select the most qualified candidates to begin with. 

Jason Blair is an active FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and CFI who consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for general aviation companies.

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Comments (26)

From the FAA's "A plan for the future..."

"Traffic Air traffic demand has declined significantly since 2000, the peak year for traffic. For the purposes of this plan, air traffic includes aircraft that are controlled, separated and managed by air traffic controllers. This includes commercial passenger and cargo aircraft as well as general aviation and military aircraft. In the past decade, volume has declined by 23 (34% in 2010 statistics by the FAA) percent and is not expected to return to 2000 levels in the near term."

The air traffic operations continue to decline at a rate of 1% per year, if the US aviation industry decline continuous we won't need air traffic controllers. Other than that, I agree with you - the hiring process is backwards.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 18, 2014 9:53 PM    Report this comment

Again, the Phd's (pointy head dudes) that believe they know so well, don't. During my 31-year career at the FAA I witnessed the gradual, then rapid, decline of common sense and true aviation knowledge at the very agency that prides itself of being the best in the World. Take for example the program intended to train Air Traffic Controllers to be On-the-Job Instructors (OJTIs) - or shall we say the CFIs of the Tower. The academic course that takes 24 classroom hours to complete (that's 3 paid work days) does NOT once mention how to teach! That's right, the emphasis is on how to fill out forms (okay, maybe important), and how to do arts and crafts projects (a group builds something that will protect and egg from breaking when dropped). Not one mention of the laws of learning, how an adult learns, or anything. At the same time, ask the holder of a Flight or Ground Instructor certificate what hoops they must jump through to earn their credentials. Why, well, the FAA doesn't hold it's own to truly high standards. Maybe now we can understand why it takes over 2 years to train a student controller.

The National Air Traffic Controller's Association doesn't exactly have clean hands here either. They regularly fight to keep controllers in training even when the best they can argue is that some paperwork wasn't done properly. And where was NATCA in the development of the new hiring standards? Given the current Administration - I'm sure they had their noses right up there as far as they could go.

There was a time that I was proud to say I worked for the FAA...today, I rarely mention that I've retired from there. I'm now working fewer hours, longer hours, for less pay at a job that requires greater knowledge and recurrent training standards. You know what, my job satisfaction and self esteem are as high now than as when first hired by the FAA in 1981. Why, because my co-workers share the same motivation and pride...just like we did in the early 1980's.

The FAA of today is Government; pure and simple. My advice - see and avoid, squawk 1200, and stay in Class G airspace.

Posted by: Gregg Hendry | May 19, 2014 4:59 AM    Report this comment

I want competence, customer service, and dedication to safety. I don't want to hear about, "diversity," when I'm flying. "Diversity," always signals that those three I mentioned are less important than, "diversity," in the minds of the pc HR people. "Diversity," as a goal has proven to be nothing but racism.

Posted by: Bill Elder | May 19, 2014 7:44 AM    Report this comment

It's unfortunate that the FAA has gone back to hiring and promoting employees on the basis of "diversity." I was hired as an air traffic control specialist with FAA with one week's notice at the end of the fiscal year in 1976, and after two years of bidding on FAA Aviation Safety Inspector positions I was hired by the Alaska region as an Inspector. A few weeks after reporting to Juneau, AK., my boss told me he was told to hire me because I was "Black" (the Alaska region mistakenly thought I had graduated from Tennessee State University, a historically black university, instead of Middle Tennessee State University). I thought he was kidding, but after my retirement in 2010, I found the proof in my Official Personnel File (OPF) that was given to me at retirement...a note stating I graduated with a M.S. from Tennessee State University, not an M.Ed. from Middle Tennessee State University. It is documented in my book "The Unruly Skies...One Man's Journey inside the FAA."

Posted by: Larry Williams | May 19, 2014 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Criminal behavior by our government. I has been going on for a while but now all that maters is "diversity". The military is doing the same thing.

Posted by: Patrick McBurnett | May 19, 2014 9:01 AM    Report this comment

Criminal behavior by our government. I has been going on for a while but now all that maters is "diversity". The military is doing the same thing.

Posted by: Patrick McBurnett | May 19, 2014 9:02 AM    Report this comment

While they don't actually come out and say it, the wording of the "Final Report' and the amount of documentation devoted to the subject leaves no doubt whatsoever that one objective which absolutely had to be met in crafting the test was to insure the results it produced showed little, and preferably no, gender/ethnic variations.

Not exactly a shining example of how to employ the scientific method.

Posted by: John Wilson | May 19, 2014 11:01 AM    Report this comment

This is what happens when you allow "business" people with no experience in the field to get hired to run the company. This is true in any line of work where the emphasis is on cost rather than a good product.

Posted by: Donald Purney | May 19, 2014 12:32 PM    Report this comment

A "biographical survey"? What would that be asking for?

Posted by: A Richie | May 19, 2014 4:09 PM    Report this comment

One of the requirements for a general public applicant states to have the ability for movement detection. I must not qualify, because I didn't see any movement backward after reading the entire PDF by the FAA.

It appears very responsible to not only controllers but those not having direct experience in the narrow field to get into a training program to become a controller. I hope it finds success.

A.R. - I didn't find a specific named survey, but the training qualifications do state the above plus numeric ability, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visualization, problem solving and movement detection. Also, three years of progressively responsible work experience, or four years of coursework leading to a bachelors degree, and passing a psychological evaluation.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 19, 2014 4:34 PM    Report this comment

Is there such a thing as "politcally INCORRECT"?

Posted by: Rod Beck | May 19, 2014 5:05 PM    Report this comment

This, unfortunately is the direction in which our country is headed. All common sense and safety is sacrificed upon the alter of "diversity". It's been going on for years, and is showing no signs of improving.

Posted by: chris underhill | May 19, 2014 5:42 PM    Report this comment

I recall psychological profiling during the '70s. I was Director of the R & D Lab for a medical products company. We were all given a test to determine whether we were a good fit in our position. The testing company did not know our names or positions.

The results came back and I should have been a geologist. The Director of Sales & Marketing should have been a priest. Another guy was thought to be female.

Our company was quite embarrassed about its wasting money on such a thing.

Another fad-of-the-day gone wrong, but they seem to keep coming back.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 20, 2014 9:40 AM    Report this comment

I am 71 now, I took a test and I was found to have a 40 year old man mentality. That is not good as if I had taken the same test at 40 I would probably have been found to have a 10 year old mentality. Am i making sense here?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 20, 2014 12:42 PM    Report this comment

Actually, Edd, having had to be around these identifiers and tests most my work life, the results look pretty spot-on to me. A pilot, and supervisor of materials used for medical products, as a geologist, sure. Sales and Marketing or a priest - identical people-reading and understanding needed. Not knowing the man's position, the last is in the wind. But he might have used his feminine traits in his work to his advantage.

Not to say the tests were necessary or used responsibly for your business's success at the company, though. That's another matter. And Rafael, sorry, but you may not be sensible, just this time. Your test showed me you have been able to avoid the false sophistication of 'acting your age' all these years, and I think that's no easy task or socially condoned behavior. Seems great to me, and you're right where you should be! :)

If this isn't the direction 'our country' is headed, to appreciate and respect those who have worked to make it great all their lives, and to stop complaining about every damn thing in their vision, particularly the big, bad FAA, and all the evil Klingons in their employ, then, yes, we are headed for worse times.

Telling someone over and over they're no good and worthless doesn't guarantee their conversion, only yours.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 20, 2014 2:03 PM    Report this comment

"Telling someone over and over they're no good and worthless doesn't guarantee their conversion, only yours." Blind obedience - no exchange of ideas? Keeping one's mind and mouth shut doesn't either.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 21, 2014 9:57 AM    Report this comment

"Is "drone" spelled correctly? And then we have the risk taskers/entreprenuers - seldom in ANY level of government! I'm with you Rafy!

Posted by: Rod Beck | May 21, 2014 2:45 PM    Report this comment

'Blind obedience - no exchange of ideas? Keeping one's mind and mouth shut doesn't either.'

You've ignored my point - that we become that which we envision others to be, all the while the others have the freedom we lost to become anything they wish.

But to address your tangential point, without better ideas to exchange, have accepted and implemented, obedience to the law is mandatory. Always keep the mind open but the mouth shut until new ideas are revealed.

And Rod, how would you spell 'drone?'

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 21, 2014 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Dave; drone: a/k/a/ "follower". I AGREE that "obedience" is mandatory; that said however, but what about when "laws" have ZIP rational logic or real world application, and rest assured Dave, we have many, then what? I know, WE change them -YES, in a "perfect" world or in Disneyland perhaps!

Posted by: Rod Beck | May 21, 2014 5:00 PM    Report this comment

Leaving anarchy aside for the moment, Rod, I'd have to examine my relationship with the laws I don't agree with or find useless. If possible, I'd find ways around them and chalk up the ones that are outdated or wrong-headed to the foibles and experimentation of the human condition, knowing, as you say, we don't and have never lived in a perfect world.

Some of my strong-willed posts come from my work to always look for solutions to problems with people who have nearly given up or abandoned hope for themselves. I have found there is always, always a way to solving problems, but not everyone is ready or prepared to use them.

Consider this on laws: Where is the greatest personal freedom found in the routine compliance to laws? Not at the low end or slack area, ignoring them can still find you in violation. Neither is freedom found in the high end or constricting area, that is evidenced sometimes in these threads by stressful resistance to laws, and as I said above, that only binds us to them.

The greatest freedom is found in the middle, neutral area of following the law to the letter. Once we are no longer for nor against the law, it cannot bind us and so we are relaxed and balanced, enjoying the hidden freedom within the law so few are aware of. It doesn't mean there aren't wrong laws and we shouldn't work to correct them, only that we found the nugget of freedom in our necessary obedience to them.

Sorry to ramble, I'm twiddling my thumbs here at work - the Phoenix VA - and things are so upset and scattered it seems nothing is getting done, which hardly helps our situation with the perception from the public and the media.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 21, 2014 7:12 PM    Report this comment

About 2 weeks ago, I met a pilot who I knew was working at one of the centers(Oberlin ). I asked him how things were going. He said he had retired. I replied he didn't have enough grey hairs yet to be retired. He said that things had changed at Oberlin so he got out. I asked what had changed. His answer was, " I am the wrong gender and the wrong skin color"-- And so it goes in the PC world of today-- EJV

Posted by: Elias Vujovich | May 23, 2014 5:35 AM    Report this comment

Oberlin center is a great place to watch movies on duty! Just don't spill popcorn on the radarscope.

http://www.wkyc.com/video/911230011001/0/FAA-Oberlin-air-traffic-controller-watches-movie-on-duty

Posted by: A Richie | May 23, 2014 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Backward Ho! The FAA way. I hired into the FAA in Miami Center in 1971. requirements then were have a four year degree or 1500 hours pilot time and an Instrument Rating. I had the pilot time. there were about 4 or 5 tests of various types, First the Civil Service test that had (if my memory is any good) a wide range of things but had several questions that were more or less "Non Radar separation questions." Medical, One where they asked several times what fork to use at a formal dinner, or where you would put yourself in a random group of 100 people. An interview with a Air Traffic Facility Chief. (they are managers these days, Chiefs back then)

Center controllers were in a up or out program that ran about three years. Only six weeks were in OKC, the rest was in house. about 11 or 12 of our class of 24 made journeyman controller. I escaped to Flight Standards as an Ops inspector after making Journeyman. It was just about the hardest thing I ever did and most of us busted our butts to make it. I was glad to get out but proud to have dome it and be able to call myself a controller.

I am on the Air Traffic advisory committee at our local college that has a great Air Traffic program, and has been successful at having graduates hired. There was lots of talk about the change in hiring at the last meeting. I asked several times what the Biographical Survey was about but no one seemed to have a clue. One person thought it might be a way to get more minorities hired. Our college has a pretty high percentage of minorities in the ATC program.

Posted by: Thomas Inglima | May 23, 2014 10:38 PM    Report this comment

Just an update...I talked with a student that "failed" the biographical survey last time. He recently was in contact with FAA HR about what qualifications changes he could make to have better success at getting hired. The indication he received was that he should answer the psychological questions different next time. Isn't the point of psychological question to determine the most appripriately qualified individuals? Not to get people to change their answers until they "get it right" and we end up hiring people who are not properly qualified for the job? I just thought that was an interesting update to the article I wrote here based on the response from the FAA HR staff to that student.

Posted by: Jason Blair | May 24, 2014 8:32 AM    Report this comment

'Isn't the point of psychological question to determine the most appripriately qualified individuals? '

Not usually, but I don't know the process of the FAA in this case. Commonly, in group settings, the point is to eliminate those who do not show appropriate qualifications for the position or grade, not for qualification.

If someone told this individual to answer the questions different next time, they were either having a sarcastic joke with him/her, or acting unprofessional perhaps, if not knowing what to say for an appropriate answer.

Of course the answers need to be aligned to the mission of the questionaire next time. This student wasn't qualified, whether a nice person, hard worker or whatever. It's the way of elimination and judgement in many areas of not only government but business also.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 24, 2014 3:05 PM    Report this comment

So much to say ... so little space and time.

I've been in aviation to one extent or another for 40 years, or so. I'm still an active aviation employee. That said, I haven't the slightest idea what direction the Agency is going with many of their programs, from computer data systems that can't "talk" to each other, to NEXTGEN, to , yes, ATC.

But on to the question at hand, the new-hire ATC force. I think the strategy of hire "diversity" at FAA will invite a high washout rate at the ATC training facility in Oklahoma, hence upping the total cost of the Agency's budget.

It's the old "forcing a square peg into a round hole" theory. But hey, folks: you out there voted for this mess ... now, deal with it.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | May 28, 2014 1:46 AM    Report this comment

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