Air Traffic Control Specialist
Job Description & Its Future
That’s the headline of an FAA press release inviting applicants to seek a career as a controller, “a dream job”. The enticement to go through the rigorous selection process includes this brief description of the work:
Air Traffic Control Specialists are responsible for the safe, orderly, and expeditious movement of air traffic through the nation’s airspace. Trainees spend their first several months of employment in an intensive training program at the FAA Academy located in Oklahoma City, OK, and continue their training once they are placed at a facility. Developmental controllers receive a wide range of training in controlling and separating live air traffic within designated airspace at and around an air traffic control tower or radar approach control facility, or an air route traffic control center.
The FAA announcement does not make clear many of the pluses and minuses of this work:
1. It would take several clicks through the FAA.gov website to find the good news (the job pays well):
As of January 2016, the initial pay for entry-level air traffic controllers while receiving initial training at the FAA Academy is $18,343 per annum, not including locality pay. After graduation from the Academy, the pay upon initial assignment to a facility usually starts at $38,193 per annum, not including locality pay. The pay range for Certified Professional Controllers varies within a pay range from $49,666 – $144,195 per annum, not including locality pay, based on the level of the facility, employees’ experience, and other factors. The locality pay of 14.35 percent to 35.75 percent is added to each employee’s pay based on the geographic location of the assigned facility. When adding in locality pay, an employee’s total salary (including locality) may not exceed the pay for Level II of the Executive Schedule, which as of January 2016 is $185,100 per annum.
2. On the negative side of explaining the ATC job, perhaps the FAA presumed that all applicants might know, there is no mention that the position of controlling traffic involves a fair amount of stress:
The Christian Science Monitor ranks this career among the 5 most stressful professions:
Air traffic controllers, who maintain the flow of aircraft in and out of airports and in flight, are key to aviation safety. This is well recognized as one of the most stressful jobs, requiring total concentration. Radar controllers, as opposed to tower controllers, also have to work in semi-darkness with an airplane full of passengers in their sight as a mere luminous blip on the screen.
The 24/7 staffing of the air traffic system sometimes requires more than 40 hour days including nights and weekends, for which they receive extra pay. Almost all air traffic controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration, a federal government agency.
Median annual wages of air traffic controllers in May 2008 were $111,870. Retirement is mandatory at age 56, but an exception may be made up to the age of 61 for those of exceptional skill and ability.
Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010 – 2011, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
3. Minimum requirements
a. Clearly explained
• Be a United States citizen
• Be age 30 or under (on the closing date of the application period)
• Pass a medical examination
• Pass a security investigation
• Pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment tests
• Speak English clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment
• Have three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a Bachelor’s degree, or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years
• Be willing to relocate to an FAA facility based on agency staffing needs
b. Not so clear—the Biographical Assessment applicable to all candidates except those graduates of an institution participating in the Collegiate Training Initiative program who provide an appropriate recommendation, as well as eligible veterans.
• “A Biographical Assessment is test that uses information about a candidate’s background as a predictor of job success. Biographical data is inexpensive to obtain, assessments are easy to administer, and data has demonstrated a positive inference for key HR KPIs like turnover and performance. The assessment looks for patterns of behavior, so applicants are asked a wide range of questions that reveal their past responses to situations that closely match those they will experience on the job.
• The Biographical Assessment that the FAA uses is a 62-question test that asks candidate about their abilities, life experience, and work background, as well as how they have handled stressful situations in the past. The FAA hopes this assessment will reduce the cost of hiring by better identifying those candidates who have the mental toughness to withstand the high-stress job of air traffic control.
• Yet some are concerned about the inclusion of the assessment in the hiring process, especially given the low passing rates. There is no guarantee that applicants will answer questions truthfully. Or they may not have the opportunity to fully explain an answer due to the length limit of the assessments which, according to one test taker, is between 500 – 1000 characters. This can be difficult when asking someone to explain past decisions and behavior which could be based from a time before they were trained properly or had more experience to successfully handle stressful situations in a more productive way.
• Concerns aside, the FAA will continue to use Biographical data in its hiring decisions. Yet with the dismal passing rates hovering around one in 12, FAA-sponsored schools participating in the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Program (AT-CTI) may start expanding their mental training coursework to better prepare students for the Biographical Assessment, or perhaps do better at “teaching the test” to ensure higher passing rates.
4. The career is a good professional path for women according to this FAA video
Take a look at the Air Traffic profession through the eyes of some of the FAA’s female controllers.
5. The career will likely face a dramatic job REdefinition change in the near future. Historically, en route and TRACON ATCers move traffic over predetermined routes. Their job has been aptly named controllers, for they direct the speed, altitude and direction of the aircraft. When NextGen is implemented, the decision about the specific flight will take will be made by pilots, entered into computers which will plot the course and assure separation and the FAA representative will manage the traffic, i.e. provide a redundant source of separation as well as advise the crews about any important changes (weather, congestion, etc.). Five to ten years into these new hire careers, the position job task will be materially altered. Some may not qualify for the new assignment.
6. The employer may change to a federally chartered organization. The House proposal includes a very complicated process to identify which existing ATCers will transfer to the corporation. The benefits, union rules and pay levels, all may be subject to the infallible wisdom of Congress.
There are few jobs requiring secondary education levels and can earn as much as $185,000 at the top level. Under income potential, an ATCer may be a dream job. The satisfaction of providing an important public safety service can be quite positive, but even that prospect is subject to a number of unknowns. A complete description of this prospective career should have included more than what the FAA disclosed.