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Back to school: Training the next generation of air cargo workers

By Hpanchal on August 1, 2011

Last summer, 16 students from the University of Huddersfield in the UK received diplomas in air transport and logistics management. During their time at the university, a few of the students had nabbed scarce internships with companies in the air-cargo arena — Air Charter Services, British Airways World Cargo, Hellman Worldwide Logistics — which prepared them for a job in the industry, but most of the graduating class won’t find jobs in airfreight.

“Air cargo companies, so far, have only played a small role in offering either internships or graduate employment in comparison to 3PLs, retailers or the passenger transport sector,” says Robert Mayer, course leader of the program.

Started in 2006, the new major combines classes from the university’s 30-year-old transport and logistics degree with courses in air cargo and passenger transport, strategic supply chain management, and logistics management — “a range of different modules,” as Mayer puts it. He’ll welcome about 20 students to the program this fall.

Mayer would like to see his students get more opportunities working with freighters, but has seen a pushback from companies confronted with qualified students eager to learn.

This reluctance from carriers and others in the industry seems to be hurting what is a nascent education field. Mayer says there are a number of universities in Europe that offer degrees in air transport, but not many that stress the freight side of things. U.S. logistics programs abound, but air transport has only started growing as an academic field.

Mayer is constantly fighting a battle of perception. Air cargo appears less glamorous to potential students; he’s confronting this by going out into high schools and showing students the real-life impacts of airfreight. But it can be a Herculean task.

“It’s difficult also to convince young people that the air cargo side and also the logistics side [gives them] great potential to find a good job,” he says.

Once students enter the program, a big issue is convincing carriers and forwarders to accept this next generation of workers. Airfreight is such a fast-paced, get-it-out-now industry, that firms are reluctant to take the time to offer internships. And without internships, these students, who could easily jump into entry-level jobs after having just a few months of on-the-job training, are left to find work outside the industry.

John Mascaritolo, director of logistics practices at Clayton State University, which is located just miles from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, says when asking about internships, he commonly hears company spokesman say, “We just don’t have the time, but if you know someone who has experience, we’d like to talk to them.” It seems that they just don’t get it, Mascaritolo says.

Recent graduates from the supply-chain program at Clayton State landed jobs in warehousing at Delta, in the import department at Kuehne + Nagel, and in Customs brokerage at Samuel Shapiro. That’s a pretty good track record for a young program still begging for airfreight internships.

Mascaritolo sets graduates up for these successes by giving students a holistic education — not simply focusing on the glamorous side of airfreight. Clayton State University students also learn the practical applications of their knowledge.

“Universities are teaching too much strategy, and when a student comes out, they don’t want to be a doer. They’re not teaching them the tactical business,” he says. “Companies want somebody to go out and work the warehouse, work order-picking or have some tactical abilities, so they can develop and train and promote from within, instead of trying to find somebody that doesn’t want to go down.”

But as with Mayer, Mascaritolo says it all really comes down to internships. “Even in entry-level jobs, [companies] need people with experience because they don’t think the universities are covering it,” he says.

A lack of internships bleeds over to a lack of recruiting, says Diana Marek, assistant director, administration and academic affairs, at Northwestern University’s transportation center. The education and research center has been graduating students since 1954, but graduates who enter the airline industry usually flock to the passenger side.

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