Last year, United Airlines touted hiring bonuses of up to $10,000. He increased his starting salary to nearly $20 an hour. Earlier this week, he hosted an in-person job fair at the United Club at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium – his second in eight months.
The company needs additional help in Denver, especially in customer service and trail jobs, but it’s not just about recovering from the lull in travel due to the pandemic, Matt said. Miller, vice president of airport operations for United in Denver.
“One of the reasons we host the job fair across all of our fields is because we’re growing in Denver,” Miller said. “We signed a new lease at the airport just before the pandemic. We will go up to 90 doors, which will open over the next year to 18 months. This means that we will develop our hub up to 700 flights per day.
That’s a 40% increase from a pre-pandemic average of around 500 flights a day. United currently has 70 gates and averages 470 departures per day.
“To grow that much means we need to hire in order to sustain growth,” he added. “Currently, we have between 6,000 and 7,000 employees in the Denver area in all of our work groups, including our flight training center.” That number will climb to more than 10,000 in four years, he said.
Travel has resumed. Denver International Airport is expected to return to 2019 passenger levels this year. And even though United operated at 85% capacity compared to 2019, its passenger numbers in the first two months of this year in Denver were 9.6% higher than in 2019 (DIA’s passenger numbers were still down 3.2% from February 2019).
Airlines and the travel industry have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic as business travel came to a virtual standstill in March 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The airline industry lost 2,700 people in the first four months of the pandemic, although most had been recovered by July 2021, according to the state labor department.
But that doesn’t mean filling the openings was easy. The leisure and hospitality industry played a big role in the so-called Great Quit, when workers quit their jobs in record numbers. Economists say people quit because they found better opportunities.
“I think the experience that United is having is emblematic of the experience of many employers in these industries (because) they are at the epicenter of this great resignation,” said Luke Pardue, chief economist for Gusto, a service payroll and services company co-headquartered in Denver.
According to data from Gusto, leisure and hospitality workers move in and out of different industries because they can. The lodging industry in Colorado had the highest rate of workers quitting in March, at 10%. Statewide, across all industries, the average job quit rate in March was 3%, down from the high of 5% recorded last fall.
“It shows how hard (employers) have to work not just to grow and expand as we enter this recovery, but just to maintain the employment they had in any given month,” said Gone. “That’s really what this economy is becoming. Employers need to find this edge to stand out among this pool of talent competing for 11 million job openings. Nationally, there are nearly two job openings for every unemployed person, which means that on average, two companies are competing for every employee. So you can compete on salaries, but if you can’t, you can also turn to benefits and try to stand out.
Up to $33.30/hour for baggage handling
At United Airlines, the starting wage rose to $19.64 an hour three weeks ago for ramp and customer service workers. This is in addition to medical and retirement benefits as well as free flights for the employee and their family.
“We have frontline workers who will now hit $33 an hour in the current contract,” said Denver director of ramp operations Luke David. “It’s a career. Earning $33 an hour is career work. Once they see that and start feeling those progressive steps and their salary going up, I think people want to stay.
David should know. He got his start in the business 23 years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska, working part-time as a customer service representative. At the time, that meant “you do everything, so I was really on the bag loading ramp,” he said. “I eventually got permanent, then a few years later I moved to Denver.”
Wages have risen at major airlines over the past month, and that’s likely because hiring has been such a problem, especially in Denver, said International Association District 141 president Mike Klemm. machinists and aerospace workers, which represents 2,500 United Workers in Denver.
“On February 28 of this year, United baggage handlers were at the top of the industry (at $33.30 per hour). Then in March, American overtook United. And now Delta announced last month that on May 1 they were going to give their employees a 4% raise to go up to $33.60,” Klemm said. “So now what is my job in the negotiations to bring them (United) above those other two groups.”
It shows how competitive things are, especially in the Denver area, which is home to other IAMAW employees at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. United’s new $19.64 start is only in Denver, which puts a crease in union pay grids. He’s starting new baggage handlers at stage five of 11, meaning those workers may not see another raise for another five years — and that’s currently being negotiated, Klemm said.
But higher wages are helping attract people interested in careers, which those jobs once were, he said.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, working for an airline was like working in the civil service. You were proud to work for the carrier and you could make a career out of it. And then in the 80s and 90s, when we were going through a lot of bankruptcies and a lot of outsourcing, work became more than work,” Klemm said. “And now, once again, this type of work is turning into more of a career opportunity for people. They can make a living out of it and work 30 to 35 years, get a pension and have insurance at a reasonable cost.
In competition with… McDonald’s?
United’s needs, however, now relate more to their pre-pandemic plans to fill hundreds of vacancies in Denver alone. Four of the new gates have already opened as part of the company’s $825 million investment to have 90 gates in Denver by next year. The goal is to reach 10,000 employees by 2026.
Adding more benefits to work is now a must. It’s been so difficult to attract the large number of workers the company has used…the job fairs.
“It’s a more competitive environment than before,” David said. “Before, we never had a job fair because you just advertised it and you got 1,000 to 2,000 applications. It’s a different environment. Now we go out and recruit and let people know what we have to offer and why we are different from what some others offer.
And by different environments, David means the competition has changed. It’s not just other airlines anymore.
“When the local McDonald’s pays $18 an hour and you don’t have to drive to the airport, it’s a competitor we’ve never competed with and now we are. . So we are now paying more than them and also offering flight benefits,” he said. “If you work at McDonald’s, you won’t be able to fly to Frankfurt on the weekends.”
Something is indeed working. Just before the start of the 10 a.m. job fair, a line of about 60 to 70 people waited to go inside on a chilly Tuesday morning. And when the doors opened, many early mornings headed for a specific career: flight attendants.
“I’m a flight attendant for another airline,” said Sam Bailey, who flew in from Houston just for the job fair. “I love their culture. I like their company. I have been able to fly with them several times and have been impressed. So I was interested in being part of their team.
Bailey would like to be based in Houston where she lives, but she is flexible. “I’m ready to go wherever work takes me.”
By the end of the job fair, nearly 300 attendees were interested in flight attendant jobs and are now going through the hiring process. A total of 970 people stopped at Mile High for the event and 350 left with a job offer, according to United.
Bailey was not one of them.
But she remains hopeful, she says.
“They take emails and send links later,” she said. “So I’ll have a certain amount of time to finish it, and then maybe I’ll go from there.”