What I Want in a Summer Job

Evaluating job opportunities.

Let’s face it: summer in the Phoenix area is brutal, as far as weather is concerned. Temperatures reaching triple digits every day from June through September. Humidity kicking in with the monsoonal rains in July and August. Everything slows down as half the population goes back to the midwest and northwest. Business — especially tourism-related business — dries up.

It’s idiotic to stay in the area if you don’t have to.

How I Spent My Last Four Summers

Back in 2004, I had a summer job as a pilot up at the Grand Canyon. It was a relatively convenient job for me, with a 7 on/7 off schedule that enabled me to go home every other week and work on whatever book projects were on my plate. The Grand Canyon area gets warm in the summer, but it’s nothing like the Phoenix area so it was a good escape from the heat. And the flying I did there was challenging, helping to improve my flying skills and knowledge. In other words, it was a good job experience.

I took the summer of 2005 off from flying. That was the summer I did my “midlife crisis road trip” — 16 days driving around the northwest, looking for a better place to live year-round or in the summer months.

In the spring of 2006, I made contact with another Robinson operator based in Washington State. He introduced me to the world of cherry drying, which looked like a good opportunity. Although he said he might have enough work for both of us, that didn’t pan out. So I stayed home that summer, doing a few flights here and there.

In the spring of 2007, my cherry drying friend was certain that he had work for both of us. With his guidance, I submitted a bid to a grower who showed a definite interest in both of us. In the end, he accepted a bid from a turbine helicopter pilot who promised him stick time in his aircraft. That’s a perk I wasn’t willing or able to throw into my bid package. By then, it was too late to find other work. So I stayed home for most of that summer, too.

Except in June.

Alaska

In June 2007, Mike and I went on vacation in Alaska. We were there for about 10 days, including a 7-day cruise.

Alaska is big and we saw a very small part of it: Anchorage, Denali, Whittier, Seward, Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Icy Straits Point. But we did have time to take two helicopter flights with Alaska’s biggest helicopter tour operator, Temsco. The scenery and type of flying on these two flights made me realize that I’d really like to fly in Alaska.

So that became my goal for the summer of 2008: to get a seasonal job flying in Alaska.

What I Bring to the Employment Equation

My experience is a bit more substantial than “entry level.” I currently have almost 2000 hours of helicopter flight time, most of which has been built doing real commercial flights — that is, flying for hire. I own and operate my own business, so I have insight into the business that few other pilots have. I know how to deal with clients and passengers. I’m also mature enough to make situation-based decisions without worries of peer pressure. I’d like to think that all this gives me an edge over the recently unemployed, 1000+ hour CFIs who flooded into the workforce with the demise of Silver State Helicopters.

At the same time, I expect to be paid based on my experience and the value I bring to the employer. A company more interested in its bottom line than hiring appropriately experienced pilots would likely go for the entry level applicants. And since a company like that may feel the same way about its mechanics and service personnel, it’s likely a company I wouldn’t want to work for anyway.

My Employment Goals

To understand how I evaluate job opportunities, it’s helpful to understand what my personal goals are in finding an employer.

Unlike most people looking for a pilot job, I’m not desperate for a job. I’d like one very much, but I can afford to be a bit picky. I won’t starve if I don’t get a job. It’s more important to get a good “match” with an employer and the job it offers than to collect a paycheck. (That’s not to say I’ll work for free or less than I’m worth.)

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of questions that I need to answer during the evaluation process. If the answer to a question is yes, that’s a point in the job’s favor. If the answer is no, that’s a point against it.

  • Will the job teach me a new skill? Some examples of the skills I’d like to build include more advanced off-airport landings (think glaciers and mining camps), sling loading, and long line work.
  • Will the job introduce me to new equipment? Most of my flight time is in Robinson R44 and R22 helicopters, with a bunch of Long Ranger time from my 2004 Grand Canyon gig. I’d like to fly different helicopter models to round out my experience.
  • Will the job enable me to build turbine time? Building turbine time is the goal of any pilot who wants to make a living as a pilot. The best jobs are the turbine helicopter pilot jobs. Without turbine experience, these good jobs will always be out of reach. I’m interested in building enough turbine time to one day qualify for work in ENG (electronic news gathering) or EMS (emergency medial services) or a tour job in an incredible place (Kauai comes to mind). And since I’m not getting any younger, I really shouldn’t put off this goal any longer than I need to.
  • Is the job in a place I could live happily? I’m not talking about living in paradise here. In general, I have very basic needs for living space: clean, fully functional, relatively quiet, private. I need access to the Internet to do my off-duty writing work. And I need to be able to shop for food and other necessities. I’d also like some recreational opportunities in the area, such as biking, hiking, or fishing.
  • Does the job pay enough to cover all my living expenses while away from home and enable me to put some money in the bank? Oddly enough, the pay on some helicopter pilot jobs is so low, it only covers basic living expenses. Pilots do these jobs solely to build time. While I could be tempted to take on another low-paying job to build turbine time, the other factors need to weigh in to guide my decision. In any case, the pay needs to be reasonable.

Why I Won’t Be Working in Alaska This Summer

Unfortunately, I won’t be working in Alaska this summer. I made a few bad decisions early on in the hiring season that cut down on my opportunities.

The main bad decision was the one to chase down an extremely interesting opportunity here in the Lower 48. It was a turbine helicopter pilot job flying either a JetRanger or a LongRanger — either of which would be pretty easy for me because of my experience. The work itself was charter work, flying passengers in different cities all over the country. There was an “on the road” component that sounded kind of fun in a weird trucker sort of way.

At first, the job seemed as if it would take up much of my summer — which, if you recall, was the goal. But as time went on, it became apparent that the job would be year-round and, as contract work, would probably only give me about 6 to 8 weeks of work a year. While that certainly would have fit into my schedule, it wasn’t as much work as I wanted or needed to make it worthwhile. Worse yet, there was overlap with the Alaska tour season, so if I took that job, I wouldn’t be able to work in Alaska, too.

By the time I figured this out, It was too late to touch base with most Alaska tour operators. I’d been waiting for job postings, but because there were so many pilots in the job market, no one was posting tour jobs. The pilots were finding employers on their own, without job postings. The employers didn’t need more applicants — they already had far too many.

I did go to Alaska earlier this month for a job interview. The interview went well and I got an offer. But the job simply wasn’t a good match — using the criteria listed above — so I had to turn it down. And now all the other employers are deep in the hiring process. Interviews are over. By waiting to see those job postings, I locked myself out.

There’s an adage about my screw-up: “He who hesitates is lost.” Believe it or not, I already know that. I’ve seen, over and over, how opportunities fade away when you don’t reach out and grab them promptly.

My failure to explore all opportunities promptly is primarily why I don’t have a job this summer. It makes me want to slap myself on the side of the head repeatedly.

Where I Will Be Working this Summer

I still have options for a summer job, using my own helicopter to get the work done. There won’t be any turbine time, although there might be some new skills learned. There will also be a ton of money — I can make a lot more money with my own ship than as an employee for someone else. And money isn’t a bad thing.

I don’t want to jinx any of these opportunities, so I’ll keep them to myself for a while. Rest assured that when I settle down for my summer employment, you can read about it here.

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