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To be or not to be...an ATCO

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To be or not to be...an ATCO

Old 13th Feb 2011, 12:52
  #1 (permalink)  
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To be or not to be...an ATCO

I've seen a lot of posts in the archives here where people essentially ask "Should I be an ATCO?"

I don't think that's really a question other people can answer for you - you have to do the hard decision making yourself and that's what I'm currently attempting to do. Problem is...I think I need some more information and experienced points of view to help me with this. There's a lot of great stuff in the archives but there are still some areas that I have questions about.

First of all, just in general, I'm having difficulty finding much of a downsides/negatives viewpoint on the job. Now, that may well be because it's a genuinely great career with very few drawbacks - or that at least the people who end up validating and being successful in it are those who really love it - and if so that's fair enough. But I'm just a little bit wary of taking the perspective of NATS themselves through their website, and a lot of the wannabes on here who are young and inexperienced in the world of work, at face value.

At 27, with a few years of full-time work experience, I'm cynical enough not to trust everything that's presented in the brochure, if you know what I mean. What are some of the things NATS might not tell me about the job or its future prospects for change/development that I might nevertheless need to know? What are the major ATCO gripes and sources of discontent? For those who've had a long career in ATC, would you do it again if you were leaving school/university today? And if anyone's left ATC or wants to leave, what are your reasons?

I'm not looking to be talked out of applying here, I'm just looking for another perspective to balance the shiny, happy recruitment spin. I don't like to get into things without both eyes open.

I suppose my main concerns about it are:

1. That once the initial novelty of talking to pilots/directing aircraft (for an aviation enthusiast) wore off, the prospect of spending a working career sat at a radar screen, with the intense concentration required, might start to seem like a drudge.

2. That the shift patterns - specifically the night working - might take a heavy toll on me. I have a very easily upset body clock and find it very hard to sleep in unusual environments or at unusual times, and being sleep deprived makes me very depressed.

3. That the sort of general trend towards cost cutting and bottom-line thinking in the aviation industry generally (if not specifically in ATC), as well as new technologies, in the long-term acts to drive down T&Cs for ATCOs and heaps more stress and responsibility on their shoulders.

4. That if I do end up unhappy in the job ten years down the line, it would be difficult to get into anything else because of the narrow, specialist skillset and lack of office-type experience.

I think part of what makes this such a hard path to decide on is the commitment it requires. You can't try out being an ATCO for six months then just do something else. It requires a big sacrifice of time and effort from you, and from NATS, to get into it...and I don't want to waste my own time or theirs.

So thanks in advance for any light (or dark) you can shine.
johnmalkovich is offline  
Old 13th Feb 2011, 14:18
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Join Date: Aug 2010
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John,
If shift work upsets your body clock, adversely affects your sleep pattern and tends to make you depressed then ATC is not for you. If you become easily bored and distracted then ATC is not for you.

Air Traffic Control, whether it is ACC, Approach, or tower is a 24/7 job that required a high level of dilligence, expertise, and the ability not allow distractions to distract you from performing your job.

Air Traffic Control is a very dynamic job, you can go from working very slow traffic to working heavy traffic in a matter of minutes (feast or famine), then back to slow traffic, you have to be able to immediately adjust. The weather will either make your job more difficult or easy depending on whether the day is sunny with light winds or you have low ceilings and thunderstorms, or snow showers, etc.

I retired after 25 years as a Tower and Radar Approach Controller, and I miss working aircraft, but I don't miss the management BS. Yes the rotating shift work was difficult, I missed a lot of family events, but I provided a good income and way of life for my family.
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Old 13th Feb 2011, 14:37
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I was an ATCO for around 35 years, both abroad and in the UK. I had no desire to become involved with anything except talking to aircraft so I never applied for anything to do with management or anything which would keep me away from home any longer than necessary. I loved every microsecond of the job: Area Control, FIS, Tower, Radar, etc. The pay was extremely good, even better now, and time off was vast: I only went to work 179 days each year. I always preferred being at home with my wife and sons but if I had to work (which I did!) I would never have wanted anything else but ATC.

I became interested in aircraft as a spotter when I was about 8-10 years old. By the time I was about 12 I wanted to be an ATCO. It took a while, but I eventually made it. My dream was to work at Heathrow and by some quirk of fate I spent the last 31 years in the job doing just that! I've been retired 8 years and I'm 66. I miss the job, but much prefer to be at home and my pension is excellent.

That's my view but I appreciate that others may not share it.
HEATHROW DIRECTOR is offline  
Old 13th Feb 2011, 16:12
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Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: On a foreign shore trying a new wine diet. So far, I've lost 3days!
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Cool

Sure beats working for a living.

On the beach (after 38 years of controlling all over the world)
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Old 13th Feb 2011, 16:42
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Join Date: Nov 2010
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Firstly, I am not an ATCO (yet?)

I think you have answered your own questions to be honest. Any job is very personal to the person considering it, and you appear to have identified the "cons" as far as the job would affect you.

If you don't want to be talked out of it, then don't let it affect you, but don't bury your head either.

Even the strongest personalities with the best job in the world can fall to depression if the environment isn't comefortable for them. Is it worth getting depressed for a pay packet, and a chance to talk to Aircraft? - That's for you to answer I suppose.

I would say that any job has draw-backs, and NATS appears to be a place with just as many as any other. It's just the "Pros" of the job seem so over-powering!

A few Cons I've noticed by reading these forums:

Terms and Conditions - It seems as though NATS management is quite happy to provide pretty bad T&Cs for its employees.

Shift Working - A Con you feel will really affect you.

Mobility - You have to be able and willing to move anywhere in the United Kindgom, at the say-so of the company. That's a big ask for anyone who isn't a single person.

Training Pay - For a 27 year old, the pay during the NATS training is likely to be significantly less than that in your current job. Of course, there is no guarantee that one will pass the course either!

--

As you said, you know the pros so I won;t list them so far as I see them, but I should at least note that, in my opinion.. the Pros out-weigh the Cons to such a degree that job satisfaction of many other options open to me can't even be compared.

Phil
P.S. I say again, I'm not a NATS employee (yet) but I'd like to be! :P
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Old 13th Feb 2011, 17:54
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<< It seems as though NATS management is quite happy to provide pretty bad T&Cs for its employees>>

Things must have changed dramatically, but the amount of time a controller can work is determined by legislation. During my 31 years with NATS and its predecessors I considered the terms extremely good compared to those "enjoyed" by friends in their chosen careers. I had 3 lots of 6-weeks time off over the years in order to visit New Zealand. In 31 years I never worked one Christmas Day, Wedding Anniversary, my birthday or my wife's birthday! I know of very few people who can get more than 2 weeks off at one time. Relatives with "very good jobs" - accountancy, teaching at Public School, etc., simply could not touch my conditions of service. They also worked many hours at home whereas I never took any work home, ever.

A neighbour of ours popped in for coffee one day and the conversation went:

Her: "Oh, Brendan, you're home again"
Me: "Yes, I've worked my 27 hours for this week"
Her: "My husband worked 80 hours last week but, of course, he has a very good job"
Me: "He hasn't got a job; he's living in hell". (That poor man is now seriously disabled after several strokes).

Depends what you want out of life. There are a good few ambition-mad types in NATS who spend every waking hour at work, but they are "management types". OK, they earned much more than me, but I preferred to be at home with my wife.
HEATHROW DIRECTOR is offline  
Old 13th Feb 2011, 18:28
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HD,

Things must have changed dramatically...
I've been retired 8 years...
Things have changed, things are continuing to change. Not for the better as far as T&Cs are concerned.

The NATS of 2011 is not the same company you left 8 years ago.
Roffa is offline  
Old 13th Feb 2011, 18:59
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The NATS of 2011 is not the same company you left 8 years ago.

And it isn't improving.

HD

Enjoy your retirement......be glad you are out.
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Old 13th Feb 2011, 19:02
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To be or not etc

Gosh Bren,how did you get away with all that skiving? Though in fairness I can't remember working many Christmas Days - as I'm such a miserable old scrooge at that time of year the family always wished I had!

In my previous career I turned down a few good trips,a 3 week jaunt to the Solomons,a 2 week trip to Acapulco to name but two, because I wanted to be at at home with the gorgeous Mrs W - mind you when Robin was in his first 18 months I could have volunteered for an unaccompanied post somewhere.

I enjoyed my 34 years in aviation, would have been 41 but for the medical 'early-go', apart from loathing West Drayton. I could not stand working in what seemed like a factory,set in the middle of that awful council estate - before you all think I'm a snob I'd grown-up(?) on one - especially after the fantastic green places I'd served on in the RAF,...South Cerney,Gaydon,Thorney Island,Changi, Fairford,Lyneham etc.

But back to the thread,ATC is a great job and I never tired of talking to the aeroplanes; as far as boring is concerned I used to say to U/Ts 'even after 30 years I learn something new everyday'. Why anyone would want to put on a suit and tie and go into an office job was always beyond me. In fact I feel so strongly about it that I believe no licensed ATCO should volunteeringly be allowed to hang up their headset until they are way past 50. There should be no place for the Paul Reids(sp) and Bristols etc except for in front of an operational position.

IMHO most of the office jobs do not need specific ATC experience and could be done by clerical staff earning far less than controllers at the 'coal face', and no fat bonuses either!

So to the undecided originator of the thread I would say,if you think you may only want to do the job for 10 years,forget it.
Brian 48nav is offline  
Old 14th Feb 2011, 09:03
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The Ts&Cs NATS provided are still VERY good. Anyone who has worked in the real world before joining NATS knows this.

Phil, to be fair, you have only experienced things from a trainees perspective... as a valid ATCO you will find that the Ts&Cs are good.

That's not to say that management would not like to erode them - but that's a different matter and is a consideration for the Unions as and when it rears its ugly head.
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 09:20
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There must be few jobs where the T&C are so good and the attendant hours, overtime, work at home so undemanding. Many, if not most, people on ATCO type salaries work all hours and take the problems home. ATCOs just unplug and forget about it until the next shift!
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 09:51
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<<Gosh Bren,how did you get away with all that skiving?>>

Threats of extreme physical violence Brian!

Helen49 - Allelujah!
HEATHROW DIRECTOR is offline  
Old 14th Feb 2011, 12:14
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Naughty but Nice
 
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Just so you don't think the blurbs on the NATS site are made up, I am one of the profiles on there. I absolutely love my job, couldn't think of anything I'd rather do. At the moment the terms and conditions are amazing and the pros are huge, the cons small. You are the only one who can decide if it is for you.
Cheers,
Northerner


"Keep smiling - it makes people wonder what you're up to..."
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 13:01
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Join Date: Nov 2010
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Phil, to be fair, you have only experienced things from a trainees perspective... as a valid ATCO you will find that the Ts&Cs are good.
I'm glad to hear that! I wish I was having my own experiences regarding NATS... so far I can tell you first hand about... the recruitment process! :P

There must be few jobs where the T&C are so good and the attendant hours, overtime, work at home so undemanding.
One word: Policing.

I've worked with the Police T&Cs and they are... generous to say the least!

ATC would seem to beat the pants off that job though for so many other reasons!

Phil
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 15:23
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Mike Retired ATC
Air Traffic Control is a very dynamic job, you can go from working very slow traffic to working heavy traffic in a matter of minutes (feast or famine), then back to slow traffic, you have to be able to immediately adjust. The weather will either make your job more difficult or easy depending on whether the day is sunny with light winds or you have low ceilings and thunderstorms, or snow showers, etc.

I retired after 25 years as a Tower and Radar Approach Controller, and I miss working aircraft, but I don't miss the management BS. Yes the rotating shift work was difficult, I missed a lot of family events, but I provided a good income and way of life for my family.
...covers it nicely.

Its good coin for a very satisfying job. When its quiet one can get grumpy with some bird that thinks 'maintain speed 210kts' is only a suggestion. When its busy and he can't play you just take him out of the sequence, waaaay too much going on to baby Capt Ego.

Bottom line mate is YOU may not cut the mustard. I understand 6% of the pop have the skillset. Lots of commercial pilot licences in ATC (got the cash, get the licence), lots of CPLs that fail. Your question should be 'are you good enough?"

So maybe your reservations are premature.
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 16:49
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<<When its quiet one can get grumpy with some bird that thinks 'maintain speed 210kts' is only a suggestion. When its busy and he can't play you just take him out of the sequence, waaaay too much going on to baby Capt Ego.>>

In your dreams, maybe?
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 18:19
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Some great responses, thanks guys. On a general point, it's always interesting and inspiring just to hear stories of people who've had really rewarding careers and succeeded in finding something they loved to do and then done it (especially on a Monday) - so thanks to HD and co. for that.

To respond to a couple of points that came up....

anotherthing:

The Ts&Cs NATS provided are still VERY good. Anyone who has worked in the real world before joining NATS knows this.
I'd definitely echo that. When I began reading up on the ATCO role I was surprised, in a positive way, by the potential level of earnings and the generous time off. That's not to take issue with anyone who currently feels Ts&Cs are coming under unreasonable pressure or have already fallen too far - I'm obviously not in a position to take a view on that - but just from an outsider's perspective, after working in traditional office jobs in both the private and public sectors, my impression on seeing what NATS had to offer was "Wow, that's good."

I take Phil's point about the training salary, and it would be substantially less than I make at the moment, but I have savings put aside that I could use to bolster my income for those first two years. Overall, money issues don't concern me too much. I'd be more interested in things like overall working conditions/atmosphere, time off, etc...and how those factors might be negatively affected by commercial pressure.

I absolutely agree with what people say about it being hard to understand why someone would want to work a corporate job for the same money and one hundred times the hassle/bull. To momentarily put the subjects of Cons aside, one of the biggest Pros for me about the prospect of ATC is that it would seem to have very little scope for the kind of bitchy, backstabbing, petty, poisonous office politics that you get in conventional workplaces (including, unfortunately, my present one). I can't stand all that conspiratorial whispering and "who said what about who to whom" nonsense - and I like the idea that as an ATCO, you're there to control, and there's no time for playing ridiculous power games.

Northerner:

Just so you don't think the blurbs on the NATS site are made up, I am one of the profiles on there. I absolutely love my job, couldn't think of anything I'd rather do.
Hey, thanks for your input. I didn't for one second suspect NATS of fictionalising their trainee profiles, I promise. I'm not quite that cynical. I just suspected there might be alternative, less positive viewpoints/stories that they might not put up there, to balance the picture. I don't quite think that recruitment sites lie, just that they tend to enhance one particular side of a potentially more complex and ambiguous truth. But I'm glad to see so many genuinely happy ATCOs, and long may you continue to be counted among them.

Track Coastal:

Bottom line mate is YOU may not cut the mustard. I understand 6% of the pop have the skillset. Lots of commercial pilot licences in ATC (got the cash, get the licence), lots of CPLs that fail. Your question should be 'are you good enough?"
Presumably I ask that while looking in the mirror?

I'm definitely not assuming I'm good enough. I may well be part of the incompetent 94%. Indeed, it's quite possible that I could be part of a smaller, elite group - say 2% - of such disastrous, catastrophic incompetence that the first time I step foot into an ATC facility, a dozen mid-air collisions happen spontaneously in different parts of the UK's airspace.

But if I decided to go ahead with applying, I would invest a great deal of time and energy in trying to make the grade - battling my own incompetence wherever it reared its head - and trying desperately not to fail. So I just wanted to try to make sure it was definitely something I wanted, definitely something that's "for me", before I embarked on that. In other words, I wanted to get the motivation part sorted out in my mind before I attempt to tackle the skill/knowledge acquisition.

Brian 48nav:

So to the undecided originator of the thread I would say,if you think you may only want to do the job for 10 years,forget it.
That line certainly resonated through me, like a perfectly struck note. I think I may well be a bit of a fair weather ATC enthusiast, if I'm brutally honest with myself. I do find it very easy to imagine enjoying a few years of it - but a twenty, thirty, forty year career....I'm less sure.

To expand slightly: I've read in other threads that it's nigh on impossible to say definitively "what makes an ATCO" and that maths/science types and graduates have failed where artsy/humanities types and school leavers have succeeded. So I know there may not be a lot of point in examining one's personality for clues and hints. BUT...having said that....HD's comment about being a spotter (and a comment of his I saw in another thread where he said something like "give me a spotter any day...") gave me a lot of pause for thought.

I've always been an aviation enthusiast, but I've never been a spotter. I go to the airport and I watch the spotters while they watch the planes (I find them a fascinating social phenomenon, and chatting to them is always interesting). I don't generally have the kind of mind that concentrates, documents, records, quantifies, classifies, orders. I tend to get distracted, to daydream, to deal in generalities rather than specifics. If I get my notepad out at the airport, it's to jot down a few sentences for a potential essay or article on the atmosphere at the airport and the kind of characters you find there.

All of this may mean nothing, but it adds up to a gut feeling that I might not quite be made of that rare ATCO stuff. Perhaps the only way to know for sure is to apply and sit the tests.
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 18:59
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You don't have to be a 100% spotter. "Aviation enthusiast" will do nicely! I also had about 10 years in the Air Training Corps as a cadet and civilian instructor behind me, which helped a lot in those days. If you had a PPL that helped nicely too.

Best of luck and I hope all pans out well for you.
HEATHROW DIRECTOR is offline  
Old 14th Feb 2011, 19:16
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Join Date: Dec 1999
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You don't even need to be an 'enthusiast'.

Back in 1998 when I joined I'd say 10% of student ATCOs were aeroplane geeks, with another 10-20% with some sort of pre-NATS interest in aviation.

Having been involved in interviewing up until two years ago, that proportion has decreased, and yet people still validate.

I know plenty of good ATCOs who get bored very easily. Me being one of them. The trick is to know it yourself and do something about it.
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Old 14th Feb 2011, 22:29
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Join Date: May 2006
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Gonzo,

I know plenty of good ATCOs who get bored very easily. Me being one of them. The trick is to know it yourself and do something about it.
Regretfully approach will never move back to the tower.
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