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Save the Associations

Reinvention: Engaging young professionals through career guidance

Air Traffic Control Association – Save the Associations Vol. 4

Since the association’s founding in 1956, the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) has had to reinvent itself on numerous occasions as culture, technology, and industry have progressed.  ATCA President and CEO Peter Dumont described that this kind of evolution is vital to the success of any association; “To survive, we don’t need to just think about now, but five years from now,” he stated.

ATCA made its first major shift as federal unions gained popularity. The association’s original mission to provide a bridge between frontline users and management became less necessary, so they instituted a new strategy to focus on the progress of science and safety. As air traffic management (ATM) technology modernizes and relationships between industry, governments, and air navigation service providers become more complex and global than ever, ATCA has embraced its new role as a community and forum where ATM stakeholders can collaborate and devise solutions to the complex challenges the airspace faces today.  

One of the major challenges for ATCA’s US members is the dwindling controller workforce. Dumont shared that nearly one-third of current FAA air traffic controllers are eligible for retirement, which is why ATCA has focused energy on helping attract and retain young talent in the aviation field.

Engaging the Younger Generations 

In the US air traffic controllers have to be hired by age 31. Due to this truncated timeline and the fact that air traffic control hiring is extremely selective, ATCA’s Young Aviation Professional (YAP) program was strategically designed to go beyond the stereotypical young professional happy hour, and instead, act as a career guide, especially to those young professionals who do not become air traffic controllers.

While a lot of the information about the various professions ATCA represents is available online, most young professionals don’t know where to start. They don’t understand the breadth of the opportunities available to them, so ATCA helps guide them through their early careers with events and mediums tailored to engage them.

  • Domestic and international conferences – These events are also open to non-YAPs so they have the chance to meet members and see ATCA in action.
  • YAPPY Hours – These happy hours are an opportunity for YAPs to connect with high-level executives in a relaxed environment.
  • Field Trips – ATCA hosts field trips to companies and facilities so YAPs can see the work being done throughout the system. The trips serve a dual purpose. The YAPs learn how each company or facility contributes to the national airspace system (NAS) and can also see what a career would look like at those companies.
  • Lunch and Learns – In an effort to be mindful of busy schedules, ATCA hosts lunch and learn lecture events for YAPs, because even the busiest professionals need lunch.
  • Panels – ATCA makes it a point to include YAPs on panels alongside their more senior counterparts. This allows YAPs to take ownership and contribute their unique viewpoints and expertise to conversations that steer the future of the NAS.
  • Tower Talks – At its largest domestic event, ATCA Annual, the association created Tower Talks, which resemble TED talks, for YAPs to share their experiences with one another and the larger aviation industry.
  • Scholarship Fund – The 2008 recession caused the younger generations to be highly conscious of financial security; a scholarship can be a big motivator for students. ATCA has given over $1 million in scholarships to students studying aviation disciplines.

Advice for Other Associations

When asked what other associations should do to effectively engage the younger generations, Dumont said to start listening. “If we want young professionals to be involved, we need young professionals to help.”

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

XYZ University - Save the Associations Blog Series

All summer long XYZ University will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise. XYZ U exists to help organizations engage younger generations of members, talent, and marketshare. We offer unparalleled generational expertise, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of future economic, membership, and marketing trends, to advise clients on the best strategies for long-term growth, relevance, and market engagement.

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