FAA Opens Controller Hiring Window

Changes coming to 2013 hiring process eliminate controversial biometric assessments.

Air Traffic Controllers
The FAA is hiring 1,400 Air Traffic Controller Specialist-Trainee positions.NATCA

If you’ve ever thought of becoming an air traffic controller, now may be your chance. Beginning next Monday, August 8, through August 15, the FAA will accept applications for entry-level ATC positions.

The agency said Tuesday, "The job vacancy for the Air Traffic Control Specialist-Trainee position will be available on USAJobs.gov, where applicants can also establish an online account today." The FAA expects more than 25,000 applications for approximately 1,400 positions. Applicants can be no older than 31 and are mandated to retire from active controlling by age 55.

Developmental controllers, another internal tag for trainees, receive intensive initial training at the FAA’s Academy in Oklahoma City before moving on to either a control tower or an en-route center for the additional education needed to qualify as a full-performance controller. This training journey often requires up to three years depending upon where the trainee is sent after Oklahoma City.

A couple of years back, the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association came to pretty much the same conclusion; the agency was losing more controllers than it was replacing, many due to retirements. Estimates say at least 12,000 new controllers will be needed by 2022. That number is just shy of the 14,000 the agency lost back in 1981 when air traffic controller members of PATCO took to the picket lines over working conditions and was eventually fired by President Reagan.

The collegiate training initiative (CTI), 36 well-equipped community colleges scattered around the country, traditionally provides a pipeline for potential controller applicants by offering air traffic control courses that prepare graduates to grab some of those vacancies. In fact, the FAA appeared to support the CTI initiative and its serendipitous focus on diversity, even offering a hiring preference to its graduates as it still does today for veterans. It made sense; the agency received well-trained individuals who'd already displayed an interest and an aptitude for ATC.

Then in December 2013, the FAA abruptly changed its hiring routine, eliminating the CTI preference and completely purging its candidate list, even dropping candidates already interviewed and approved for hire. The FAA added a controversial biographical assessment to the new post-2013 hiring approach that asked questions industry insiders claimed were focused on adding more diversity, although the agency denied that assertion. An agency report from early 2013 showed that of the 1,117 controllers who responded to a diversity questionnaire, 74.6 percent were men, nearly 24 percent women, with approximately 15 percent reporting they were Hispanic/Latino and approximately 11 percent Black/African American.

The agency seemed to believe it still had much work to do around diversity and it was also believed the assessment questions were really designed to fix that problem at the exclusion of almost all other relevant experience. The agency denied these assertions. Many critics also wondered precisely what the new assessment was trying to measure.

By mid-2014, controller hiring numbers plummeted as the agency wrestled with the outcome of its changes, all at a time when more new controllers were most needed. Attendance at CTI schools also dropped precipitously with students deciding to take their chances along with everyone else and save their money for other endeavors.

But as of today, the FAA appears to have learned a valuable lesson in the past few years with a number of important changes to the hiring process that will affect this newest batch of potential trainees. An FAA spokesman confirmed with Flying today that the CTI program and its preference is back in play, thanks to the recent short-term FAA reauthorization legislation passed in Congress.

The agency will create two different hiring pools, one for CTI grads and veterans and the second for everyone else, essentially those people who don’t meet the preference qualifications. The two pools will each supply approximately half of the 1,452 people the agency is expected to hire. People in the CTI/veteran pool will not be required to participate in the controversial biographical assessment. Applicants turned down in the past because of the original biographical assessment are being urged to reapply.

If you've never thought of becoming an air traffic controller, think about it for three minutes while you listen to JFK tower controller Steve Abraham explain his job.