News Article - August 26 2006

Baggage handlers to be hired at PHL
  More job recruiters were on the hunt Friday for baggage handlers to work at Philadelphia International Airport, but this time, the airline looking is the one that's been expanding rapidly here. Southwest Airlines recruiters were certainly looking for workers with attitude - the friendly, upbeat kind - even for a job that involves heaving lots of luggage in all sorts of weather. Earlier this month, US Airways held several recruiting sessions to add 200 baggage handlers and customer-service workers to address a chronic shortage in its operations. Southwest has grown in 21/2 years at Philadelphia International Airport from 14 to 65 flights a day and now ranks second to US Airways in the number of passengers carried here. To keep expanding, Southwest is making a vigorous push to hire more baggage handlers and customer-service agents who must pass a rigorous screening before they get an offer from the nation's most consistently profitable airline. In group orientation sessions for the bag-handling jobs yesterday at the Ramada Inn in Essington, Delaware County, close to 200 prospects learned how physically demanding the work can be, the importance of not missing work, and how the company shares profit with employees.

   "As long as they have a positive motivation, I can teach them to be a ramp agent , and a good one," said Eli Robbins, an oboe player with a degree in music education, who started working for Southwest as a bag handler, or ramp agent, in Oakland, Calif., while he was in graduate school. After 31/2 years loading bags, he became a recruiter 18 months ago, based in Chicago. "I'm the total realization that we hire for attitude, because they said, 'We can train him to be a recruiter,' " Robbins said. Southwest can be choosy about the people it hires. It routinely is named as one of the best companies to work for. Southwest officials have estimated it receives 100 resumes each year for every job opening. They are looking for 15 to 20 baggage handlers in Philadelphia.

   The Dallas-based airline is growing across the country and often has no need to advertise openings. In the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas, though, the company has found it needs not only to advertise, but also to hold job fairs and raise the starting pay for baggage handlers from $8.65 to $10.18 an hour, because of the higher cost of living compared with many cities, recruiter Linda Engstrom said. Airline labor experts say finding and keeping baggage handlers is always tough, primarily because of the physical demands of a job that is mostly outdoors, year-round, and starts at $8.50 to $10 an hour. The job has gotten even more strenuous because the new security restrictions banning liquids in carry-on bags, adopted two weeks ago, have increased the amount of checked luggage by 20 percent to 30 percent for most airlines. "Every airline that operates in an environment with extreme weather conditions has the problem" of retaining good baggage handlers, said Jerry Glass, a Washington airline-labor consultant and former senior vice president of US Airways.

   The 25 recruiters at yesterday's sessions, all wearing blue Southwest polo shirts, were walking advertisements for the company, smiling at everyone they met and eager to talk about why they were enthusiastic about their employer. "This is not an act," said Diane Empting, part of the pilot-recruiting team, who was wearing a foam model of an airplane around her waist as she handed out packets of peanuts and pretzels at the hotel's front door. "I can't say enough. I wish everybody could work somewhere that has the same spirit." Several applicants said they were impressed with what they saw, heard and felt during the day.

   Ashley Rivers, 21, who just graduated from the Art Institute of Philadelphia with a degree in multimedia Web design, applied to be a baggage handler because she's looking for a new challenge. She's been a Southwest customer, and having chatty Southwest employees to speak to helped her understand why the company is the way it is, she said. "I had a great time," Rivers said as she left the hotel. "I feel good about this... . I flew with them a few times, and I've never seen a bad employee attitude. If they were having a bad day, you couldn't tell."

Source - Phila. Inquirer