Sky Harbor Makes Professional Development a Priority

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 


Project: Professional Development

Location: Phoenix Sky Harbor Int'l Airport

Initiative: Management Development Program

Strategy: Build airport industry knowledge via 18-credit college curriculum

Areas of Study: Aviation legislation; airport
development & operations; airport management;
aviation law; airport administration & finance;
airport planning & design

Partner: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Funding: City of Phoenix Tuition Reimbursement Program

Results: 135 graduates; increased camaraderie
& cross-division cooperation among participants

Program: Paid Internships

Strategy: Attract new talent

Position Duration: 18 mos.

Mgt. Approach: Rotate interns through various
divisions & projects to provide broad range of
experience & knowledge

Result: Most interns secure permanent positions at airport; some ascend to senior management positions

Program: Building Bench Strength

Strategy: Encourage career planning; create
qualified pool of future leaders

Partner: Facilitator Nancy Van Pelt

Participation: Mandatory

Program: Industry credentialing

Partners: American Assoc. of Airport Executives; Consultant Jeffrey Price

Strategy: Classes, study groups & mentoring for employees seeking certified member designation
& full accreditation

Results: 50 certified AAAE members; 3 fully
accredited airport executives

After a long day of work, most airport employees are more than ready to check out. But once a week, a special cadre at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) stays nearly five more hours to learn more about the airport industry. The employees are voluntary participants of PHX's Management Development Program, a 14-month curriculum administered and taught by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In March, the airport's eighth class completed the program, bringing its total alumni to more than 130 employees. Courses cover six areas of study and net graduates 18 college credits. Many employees apply the credits toward a bachelor's degree or use it as a springboard for earning credentials from the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).

"The 14-month program is a big commitment," says Anita Clock, curriculum and training coordinator for city of Phoenix's Aviation Department. "Classes are held right here at the airport for convenience, but employees are 'off the clock,' so they're sacrificing time away from their families and other activities."

PHX is proud of the depth and breadth of the curriculum, which includes courses about aviation legislation; airport development and operations; aviation law; administration and finance; airport management; and facility/infrastructure planning and design. Field trips are also considered an integral part of the program and are perennial class favorites. Destinations include PHX's aircraft rescue and firefighting station, Air National Guard facilities, a fixed-base operator, cargo hauler, etc.

"We expose them to many sides of the airport and also take them to other hub and general aviation airports," notes Clock.  

Nancy Zeman, director of academic support at Embry-Riddle's Phoenix Sky Harbor campus, considers the combination of traditional classroom presentations, guest speakers and collaborative projects an effective way to teach working professionals.

Embry-Riddle offers a program with the same course requirements, the Airport Management Certificate of Completion, online and at many of its Worldwide Campus locations.    

At PHX, the program attracts participants from all levels and departments. "We've had every division of the airport represented throughout the years," Clock reports. "Some employees enroll to help them do their current jobs better; others are looking to position themselves for advancement. Sometimes, people are promoted before the end of the program."

Clock has literally seen the experience change employees' lives. She recalls one frontline airfield worker with a GED who was initially apprehensive about sitting in class next to department supervisors and other higher-ranking airport personnel. "That's one of the best parts of the Management Development Program: the camaraderie it builds. Employees form relationships with people from other divisions that stay intact after classes end. Even though they come in with various levels of education and industry experience, they band together to learn the material and collaborate on group projects."

Interest in the program has remained consistently high throughout the years, she reports. When 36 employees enrolled for one session, she split the group into two concurrent classes. The most recent class included 12 students; the session before contained 32.

The program has even spanned generations of two different families. Graduates include a mother/daughter pair (facilities supervisor and landside operations assistant, respectively) as well as a project manager aunt and her niece, who works in the airport's communications center. 

Coffee-Fetchers Need Not Apply

Management Development Program participants aren't the only PHX employees working to boost their knowledge and skills. One or two paid interns have been regular fixtures around the airport since 1980. Not surprisingly, the positions are coveted posts for recent college graduates and others interested in a career at PHX.

Interns who don't arrive with an aviation degree are required to enroll in the airport's Management Development Program to boost their knowledge about the overall industry. That was the case for recent intern K.J. Irwin, who had a degree in planning before he was "bitten by the aviation bug." Now, he works as a project management assistant at the airport's Rental Car Center.
The structure of the program has "morphed and changed" over the years, relates LaVonne Morris, the management assistant from the director's office who oversees the interns. One aspect, however, hasn't changed: the intense competition for each and every spot.

"A few hundred candidates usually apply, and we interview 10 to 12 of them," reports Morris. "The applicant pool is very strong, so it's difficult to whittle it down."

The top picks who land an internship are sent through "rotations" much like medical residents. "We start them in Operations, right in the thick of everything," Morris explains. "Then, they move through Facilities and Services, Public Relations, Planning and Environmental and many other divisions, spending two to three months at each one."

Interns begin their 18-month stints by meeting with all of the department deputy directors to determine what work is available. "It's a very collaborative process," she notes. "We help them juggle the timing of important events affecting each area, but we encourage them to set their own direction according to what interests them. Plus, we want to see how much of a go-getter each one is."

Throughout the years, PHX interns have helped write procedure manuals, develop airside and security training videos, facilitate international aviation symposiums, coordinate visits by Air Force One, develop requests for project proposals, make preparations for special events such as the Super Bowl, plan live emergency drills and many other projects throughout the airport. "We give them valuable, meaningful jobs that give them the opportunity to show us what they're made of," explains Morris. "It's a nice mix of spreadsheets and documents, sitting in on planning meetings and working out on the airfield."

One recurrent duty is distilling 50- to 60-page weekly department reports into one- or two-page summaries for the city manager's office. "It helps them determine what's really important and teaches them about the political implications of various airport activities," she notes.

After each intern's service is complete, many apply for permanent positions at PHX. "There's not a guaranteed job waiting for them at the end," qualifies Morris. "Competition has been stiff for openings the last few years, but we coach them through the process."

Many interns do, in fact, land permanent positions at PHX; and some climb to the top levels of its organizational chart. One of the airport's first interns now heads a section of the Facilities and Services Division, and others have ascended to professional positions in Public Relations, Business and Properties, Economic Development and other key areas. One former PHX intern eventually became director at Stockton Metropolitan Airport in California.

Helping interns develop their careers is a favorite job duty for Morris. "They step up and do great things," she relates. "It's fun to watch them take the ball and run."

Ready for the Big League

With a large wave of retirements looming on the horizon, PHX recently resurrected a succession planning program it used about 10 years ago. Need for the program originally emerged during strategic planning sessions that human resources consultant Nancy Van Pelt facilitated for the airport's division leaders. Van Pelt's program, Building Bench Strength, is designed to help develop a viable pool of in-house candidates to fill future vacancies in upper level positions.

The program approaches the issue on two fronts: self-assessment and career planning. It also focuses on building both organizational savvy and professional development. This time around, PHX is piloting the curriculum in its Facilities and Services Division and will offer the program to other areas during subsequent phases.

Van Pelt explains that airport employees, like workers in other industries and organizations, often feel overlooked for promotions. "We examined the 'edge' that outsiders often have in securing leadership positions and help in-house candidates develop themselves in these areas," she elaborates. "We encourage them to broaden their range of experience within the airport, to learn more about the industry as a whole and to engage in career-planning so they don't get pigeonholed in one position or area."

During the 10-week program, employees listen to accomplished PHX leaders chronicle their own career paths and describe how their positions fit the airport's overall mission. They also complete self-assessment exercises to clarify their advancement goals and use journals to capture their reactions to presentations and ideas they may want to pursue or implement. Some interview or shadow leaders they admire. Sessions typically last 11/2 to 2 hours and occur every other week.

"It's a combination of introspection and outside information from current thought leaders," says Van Pelt. "We want to give participants a broader perspective on the organization and an opportunity to develop contacts beyond their current positions and departments."

She is delivering the pilot program in three cascading phases, beginning with high-level leaders, then moving on to their direct reports and then to frontline supervisors. After participating in the first session, the Aviation Training Team will co-present the second round with Van Pelt and will eventually facilitate the final session of the pilot alone. It will take 11/2 years to deliver the program to about 68 PHX employees.

Participation in some aspects, such as shadowing or interviewing a leader, is optional; but all supervisory employees are required to attend speaker presentations, participate in self-assessment exercises and discuss career aspirations with their bosses.

"I keep the information quick and interesting - career 'makers and breakers,' for instance," says Van Pelt. "Basically, I get employees thinking about their career paths, which, in turn, helps build a cadre of future leaders for the airport."

Earning the Initials

Given PHX's multi-program professional development strategy, it stands to reason that it has more certified members of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) on staff than any other airport in the country. It also has three fully accredited members.

Interest in pursuing professional credentials has been historically strong at PHX, reports Clock. After joining the airport's workforce in 2006, she formalized a variety of ad hoc support mechanisms into official programs. Employees still share homemade flashcards, matrices and other study tools to assist with mastering the AAAE modules, but they now have other options as well.  

These days, they can attend a series of weekly study groups to help learn the curriculum. Resident experts in a variety of areas such as airspace, construction, signs and lighting, etc. donate their time to coach fellow employees on specific AAAE material; existing "CMs" also help lead the study groups. After 16 sessions, employees can take a proctored practice test, designed to analyze their overall readiness and reveal specific areas that might require more study time before the real exam.

The airport also provides a one-week AAAE CM study course led by industry consultant Jeffrey Price.

"A lot of the work is self-study, but we try to do all we can to help them achieve their goal," explains Clock. "Between help from other employees and the outside resources we bring in, they're usually very well prepared for the test."

Clock credits several PHX leaders for supporting professional development on a personal level. Aviation Superintendent Jennifer Maples, for instance, is particularly active helping employees prepare for AAAE certification exams and encouraging involvement in the association's Southwest chapter. Her willingness to engage directly indicates a self-perpetuating quality to the airport's ongoing professional development efforts: PHX leaders mentored Maples when she was one of the airport's first interns; now she's returning the favor to employees who aspire to her level of accomplishment.


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