The Power and Limitations of Networking

Before COVID, airline hiring conferences were big business…and they were horrible! Attendees paid hundreds of dollars (plus travel expenses that we’ll enumerate shortly) to stand in line for 8-10 hours in hopes of getting 15 minutes with an airline recruiter who’d spent those same 8-10 hours looking at nearly identical resumes and having essentially the same conversation every 15 minutes. Gag!

The death of this type of hiring conference is the only COVID casualty I celebrate.

During COVID, major airlines let thousands of pilots retire early. Then, the post-COVID recovery happened more rapidly than anyone could have imagined and every airline found itself desperately short on pilots.

Despite scoring applications as quickly as possible, airlines realized they needed some other way to get to candidates. Thanks to an enlightened desire to include more people in this awesome profession, most airlines have also discovered a desire to increase hiring from among demographics with less representation in the pilot community.

These pressures led to a rebirth of the airline pilot hiring conference. Events like NGPA, WAI, TPNx, RTAG, PAPA, and others have enjoyed attendance of any airline serious about hiring pilots in this post-COVID boom. These conferences are formatted somewhat better than their previous iteration, though it’s always a delicate balance between honest Networking event and pilot meat market.

I frequent some online groups for low-time pilots and constantly see new aviators ask whether they should attend these conferences.

Responses range from, “Of course you should! You can never start Networking too soon!” to more balanced perspectives. I lean toward the latter of those two, and I’m writing this to illustrate my reasoning.

Yes, Actual Superpowers

Of all my online articles, I’m particularly proud of this one: Networking – The Pilot Superpower. If you haven’t read it, you should, but the title says it all. I have enjoyed fantastic opportunities, both inside and outside aviation, thanks to Networking.

Even better, I’ve been able to leverage my personal network to play matchmaker for others. I’ve helped friends and even acquaintances enjoy fantastic opportunities, both inside and outside aviation, thanks to Networking.

I hope my article on the subject explains how much I stand in favor of Networking. Before that article, I also wrote another post about Making Your Own Stars Align. It’s tangentially related, but worth reading. For many opportunities, especially in aviation, some effective Networking can be the last little nudge that locks those stars into their neat little row.

I believe most pilots would benefit from learning about effective Networking much earlier in their careers. This means my fellow CFIs and I need to ensure we understand Networking ourselves, and that we spend time instructing our students on that important discipline. (Yes, being a CFI means more than just teaching about stick & rudder.)

Practical Limitations

As strongly as I support the idea of genuine Networking, I believe it’s critical for us to understand that it has its limits.

If a 250-hour Commercial pilot were to show up at an airline hiring conference expecting to have a productive conversation with the United Airlines recruiters, that person will be sorely disappointed.

Those recruiters will be polite. They’ll appreciate the young pilot’s enthusiasm, probably remembering what it was like to walk in those shoes many years ago. They may be able to offer some useful overall career advice.

However, when it comes to landing a serious airline job, there’s nothing they can do. This candidate is more than 1000 hours short of meeting United’s hiring minimums. There is nothing in their corporate structure that allows them to give this aspiring aviator anything concrete. (Blame it on their blood-sucking lawyers!)

Now, these recruiters will certainly encourage a young pilot to apply for their Aviate career pathway program. However, our intrepid young pilot doesn’t need to attend a hiring conference to get that shot. All it takes to apply for that program (and/or similar programs at other companies) is to go to the website, read the instructions, and then correctly follow those instructions.

Make no mistake: the airlines need more pilots than are currently available. You do not need a “leg up” to get serious consideration from a pilot pathway program. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. If you can’t tell what they’re selling, then you are their product.

None of this means that United is being mean to our young pilot. They simply have standards they must uphold, and can’t do any favors for anyone who has failed to meet those standards.

(Again…we can and should blame the lawyers here, though we can probably all agree that this is morally correct position despite the attorneys’ involvement, right?)

Remember: Networking is not and can never be an excuse to give someone a benefit for which they are unqualified. That is a completely different concept called patronage…and I hate it even though I (perhaps unfairly and certainly unintentionally) benefitted from it during my active Air Force service.

It’s tough to be on the senior side of a mentoring-type Networking relationship. You invariably like the person with whom you share a connection. You want them to succeed. You wish you’d had someone like yourself when you were their age to provide advice and feedback. It’s damn tempting to start helping the unqualified because you believe they deserve it.

The idea of deserving, of being entitled to, something is dangerous. We see this in sticky situations throughout our society. In the military, this results in bad (non)leaders being placed into choice assignments or even command roles for which they’re unsuited. In business, this results in lost productivity and profits, or worse.

In aviation, this can be deadly.

As a pilot you should never ask someone to give you what you have not earned. It’s not fair to you, your family, your customers, or your employer.

Easy Straightforward Solution

Thankfully, the solution to avoiding patronage in aviation is straightforward: do what it takes to earn new opportunities.

Yes, I know. That’s expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Not every pilot is blessed with the ability to ride the US Government gravy train as a military pilot, or has the savings or credit history to easily fund flight training. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners.

I wrote a 6-article series suggesting several ways for aspiring pilots in tough spots to affordably break into this industry. I firmly believe that any person willing to work hard can put those strategies to use and make it to a dream job in aviation.

On a more practical level, this makes the decision on attending an airline hiring conference simple. Are you at or very near the minimum requirements for one or more companies at that conference? If so, then attending might be worthwhile.

If you’re nowhere near anyone’s minimums, then you’re far better off staying home and working on reaching those minimums. What would it cost you to attend that conference? Put the same amount of money into getting another rating, buying a block of flight hours, or just paying your rent while you hunt for low time pilot jobs at home. Speaking of which….

Low Time Pilot Jobs

The new wave of hiring conferences has been extremely successful, with pilots showing up in droves. Although big-name airlines are benefitting from this, many smaller employers have also realized they can show up and accomplish some meaningful recruiting among lower-time pilots who need a few hundred hours before the airlines will hire them.

This means these hiring conferences can still provide excellent opportunities for pilots nowhere near big airline hiring minimums.

For a pilot who has run out of other options, attending one of these conferences is a great way to get an entry- or mid-level pilot job that can help bridge the 1000+ hour gap between earning a Commercial Pilot certificate and reaching ATP minimums.

If we stopped this discussion right here, we’d have easy decisions for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or how unqualified you might be. Show up at any of these conferences because there’s probably someone willing to offer you a job within 249 hours of your current total flight time. If only it were that simple!

Real Costs

Thankfully, hiring conference ticket prices have gone down over the years. Tickets used to cost several hundred dollars, with fast passes available as up-charges. Again, gag!

I happen to know the guys who run TPNx, and know that it costs them far more than my wife and I spent on two weddings to host their conference each year! They charge a (nominal, though not insignificant) fee for people to attend. They also do this because they know that putting a $0 price tag on a thing leads many consumers to treat that thing as though it has no value. With limited airline interview slots available, they don’t want to waste anyone’s time by having a potential attendee back out at the last minute because there’s no associated monetary cost. Sadly, that happens a lot. People are weird that way.

Some conferences these days believe their attendees are more reliable, more hungry, or both, and offer free or very cheap admission anyway. You’ll hear their promoters go on and on about how everyone should attend because there’s no cost to the attendee. While that may technically be true when discussing entrance tickets, it’s at best a gross oversimplification. At worst, it’s disingenuous.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that you can’t get something for nothing.

This is also true of hiring conferences. Let’s consider the range of costs you might encounter for attending something like the LPA Conference in St Petersburg, FL, later this month.

  • Airfare: $50-$200+ in each direction
  • Lodging: $50-$150 per night
  • Local Transit (Airport shuttles, Ubers, and or rental car): $10-$100 per day
  • Materials Prep (Resumes, printed on decent paper, business cards, etc.): $10-$100
  • Wardrobe (a nice, well-tailored suit + accessories): $300-$1000
  • Food: $25-$50 per day, if you don’t attend any parties or go drinking with friends
  • Conference tickets: $0-$400+

If you go the cheap-o route, buying a suit from Goodwill because it might not even fit by the time you get your next 1250 hours and do airline interviews, staying in a roach coach motel, eating off the Taco Bell value menu, flying on an uncomfortable ULCC, and only walking or taking the airport shuttle, you might be able to get through a weekend conference for as little as $500.

If you’re interested in actually looking good, you want to stay somewhere at least safe and hygienic enough to get some decent rest, and you want to go out to dinner with some friends (see also: Networking), these costs could easily pass $2000.

Holy cow!

For a low time pilot who just buried themselves in debt just to get to the 250-hour mark, $500 is a lot of money. Spending a couple thousand on something like this is downright crazy. Do not let anyone tell you that attending a pilot career conference is free!

What could a pilot do with that money? At the school where they just got their ratings, adding on CFI, CFII and/or MEI would certainly be within reach at those prices. A seaplane add-on can be done for about $2100 at Jack Brown’s, and a Glider rating could be even cheaper. A tailwheel endorsement should be attainable at the low end of that $500-2000 range. Those are expensive ways to get a few hours, but you’d be shocked at the employment opportunities they open up!

A low-time pilot could use that much money to buy a block of flight hours. They’d only get a handful in a twin, but I’ve seen deals offering time in singles around $100/hr.

For many low-time pilots, that chunk of change might be enough to cover rent and basic living expenses while shopping for a local flying job, which brings me to my next point:

Shop Local

Before you travel to some fancy, expensive conference you should (and I’d rather say “must”) exhaust options in your local area.

There is a very high probability that employers in your local area want to pay you to fill low-time pilot jobs. I’ve rarely heard of a flight school with too many instructors before the airline hiring boom. Nowadays, I suspect any school would welcome help. There are also always opportunities for tour operators, banner towing, glider towing, dropzone pilots, small freight carriers, pipeline patrol, survey, small charter services, and so many more jobs!

As long as a job is safe and provides a reliable source of flying hours and experience, you should not pass up a good opportunity in your area.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be willing to move. On the contrary, I’ve known too many pilots who feel entitled to a safe, high-paying, non-CFI flying job in their local area. One of my buddies refused to move in pursuit of better jobs, then had the audacity to complain about not being able to find the types of jobs he wanted.

As a pilot, you must be willing to go where the work is. However, moving isn’t free. Also, the sad truth is that low-time pilot jobs are not the most steady form of work. I’ve heard countless stories of a pilot moving far from home to pursue a job, only to be told that the owner sold the aircraft, or the contract dried up, or someone bent the airplane and it’ll be down for months.

Moving for a job is absolutely the right call, but only after you’ve exhausted options for good, safe jobs in your area.

Local Networking

Remember that we started this all off with a discussion of Networking. If your flight instructors, family, and friends know you as a hardworking person, you already have a strong base to start Networking in your local area. Have you asked your flight school if they know of anyone hiring? I guarantee they’ll give a strong recommendation for a sharp, hardworking graduate of their flight program. I guarantee they know aviation employers in your area and frequently discuss job opportunities.

If you want to start meeting people, there’s nothing easier than driving (or even better flying) to all the local airports in your area. You can start by just wandering around with a stack of business cards and resumes in hand and introducing yourself. This is essentially the same as attending a fancy hiring conference, except you can do it every day of the week for the cost of gas.

If you try this strategy, you may be surprised at how many connections you already have through your family, your church or other community organizations, your schools, past employers, etc. Those types of things are the basis of effective Networking.

Compare this to attending a pilot hiring conference. As a low-time pilot, you’ll be a stranger to everyone present. You will wisely be doing what Networking you can, but it’ll be a slow start and you’ll be just one little fish in a big pond full of similar looking fish. It’s tough to stand out in that crowd, compared to driving to places near home and being the only professional-looking pilot in months to show up. (Uncle Emet’s hints: Get a haircut. Shave, shower, and comb your hair. Put on a clean shirt with a collar. Wear khakis or similar pants and shoes slightly nicer than sneakers. Confidently introduce yourself, shake hands, look people in the eye.)

If you’re offered a low-time job at a hiring conference, you’ll need time to relocate before you can start working. If you’re Networking near home, you could get invited to fly/interview on the spot. Great! Your headset and EFB are in the car. Here are my logbook and resume to pursue while I grab them. If you get hired, you can literally start that same day, then drive home that night after work.

Time and Place

Let’s take a step back and consider the point of this whole discussion. Your goal is to earn a shot at a great flying job. You want a major airline, or a corporate gig flying G800s around the world, or something else equally compelling.

In order to reach that, you first need to get from 250 hours total time to 1500 hours total time without going bankrupt. Even when you reach 1500 hours, you’ll need to earn your ATP and then probably get a job as an FO at a regional airline or ULCC, or in the right seat of an Embraer Phenom 300.

Yes, you may need to attend a hiring conference to get that 1500-hour jet job. However, you won’t be competitive for that job as a 300-hour Commercial pilot. You need to do whatever it takes to bridge that 1200-hour gap as quickly, safely, and ethically as possible. Attending a hiring conference for that job as a 300-hour pilot will not help.

You could spend a lot of money trying to get a low-time pilot job at an expensive hiring conference. However, before you try that, you are far better off at least checking for opportunities in your local area. You could save your money and put it toward flight hours, advanced ratings, or even just rent, while you pursue local employment opportunities.

Let’s also note that hiring conferences are not the only way to get a non-local job. Employers post low-time pilot jobs all over the internet. After a day of job hunting/Networking at local airports, you can and should hop online to check job websites, message boards, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, and countless other sources for jobs. You’ll be able to apply for these opportunities from your couch without having to spend a dime.

You can and should also be asking every person you speak to locally if they know of any far-away employers looking for pilots. Aviation is a small world, and an in-person Networking interaction like that will be every bit as effective, if not more so, than a hiring conference attended by hundreds of pilots with resumes just like yours.

You can and should also spend your evenings submitting online applications to pilot pathway programs for a variety of companies. (Just be careful which ones you choose. I strongly recommend not locking yourself into a pipeline for your #1 or #2 airlines. Instead, pursue pathways for your #3 and later choices as backups. This will preserve your ability to apply outside the pipeline for your top choice companies.)

If you’ve truly exhausted all your local options and can’t get any traction with remote applications, then by all means try a hiring conference! You’re far better off moving away from home and taking a good job elsewhere, than sitting around in your parents’ basement complaining that nobody’s giving you the local job to which you feel entitled.

However, don’t let someone convince you to spend your money attending a conference, before you’ve exhausted local options, when you’re so far below the minimums for the airline/jet jobs that are at the heart of those conferences.

I wish I could promise you this path would be easy. I wish airlines could interview and give firm job offers to pilots the moment they started training. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Keep working hard, because the end result is worth it!

Do right by your employers, be safe, stay out of trouble, and treat any personal interaction as a potential Networking opportunity. If you can earn a good reputation, it will follow you! Aviation is a small community and the more you get known as a safe, effective, reliable pilot, the more opportunities you’ll get. A hiring conference may be a step in that process, but don’t break the bank on one until it makes sense.

This post’s feature image is from Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

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