“I would never have passed the screening questions in an applicant tracking system to be a recruiter, yet today I manage applicant tracking systems.”

John Whalin
Senior Program Manager for Talent Acquisition, United Airlines

John Whalin probably has one of the most unconventional, yet fascinating stories about how he came to be Senior Program Manager for Talent Acquisition at United Airlines. At the start of his life, John had dreams of becoming a bus driver, but then fell into the world of music. This led him to becoming a drum major of a Big Ten university, then band director, followed by working on a cruise ship and traveling all over the world. At that point, he felt he needed to find something that would help launch a career back on land. So using his education platform and teaching background in addition to his cruise ship experience, he interviewed for training and development onboard and helped lead his crew to Ship of the Year.

Although adventurous, working on ships is challenging to make a lifelong a career. John came back ashore to Houston and became the lead of an off-Broadway musical at Stages Theatre. At the end of its billing, he networked an employee referral and found an opportunity working as a recruiter for Continental Airlines. John pointed out a bit of irony in that, “… applicant tracking systems are a ‘catch 22.’ You must have experience to get the job because you’re required to pass the screening questions. I would never have passed the screening questions in an applicant tracking system to be a recruiter, yet today I manage applicant tracking systems. So interesting that referrals and networking are still the best avenues to finding your next job.”

After a brief stint as a recruiter, he moved into his current role, which at the time was a compliance analyst. Now his main focus is training recruiters on best practices and processes, recruitment innovation, OFCCP compliance, managing the ATS, recruitment metrics, recruitment branding, and adjusting to the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines. He pretty much touches all types of hiring at the company.

In a recent interview, John touched on why he loves his job, what his team does well, and what he values from his DirectEmployers membership.

Nancy: Why do you love what you do?

John: I think in all of Human Resources, recruiting is one of the most exciting aspects of our division. There’s nothing better than offering somebody a job and saying “welcome to our team!” We have to sell ourselves as much as these applicants have to sell themselves to us, and I still love being a part of what that means. Technology and social media is moving so fast and it hits recruiting as much as it hits the sales division of our company. Sales is huge, you want to get your information and product in front of the customer, so of course we’re doing that with sales promotions on flights as much as we can on mobile technology. But the disconnect of where talent is and where talent is moving, we have to do the same thing with our goals in recruiting. So how can I get mobile apps in front of people, what can I do to make sure that my website is as, if not more, attractive than other airlines’ websites? Everyone is a little bit lagging in social – we were looking at where AT&T was the other day and where IBM is going. Our industry lags behind slightly. “How can United be cutting edge?” That’s my passion.

Nancy: Even though you’re recruiting internally at this point, what do you do really well?

John: United Airlines is very good at making sure our processes are standardized company-wide. It’s really important when we hire someone as a ground agent, a gate agent, a flight attendant or a pilot, that those individuals can easily cross anywhere in the country. If a line agent wants to move from Los Angeles to Houston, they have to be able to come straight to that location and immediately have the skills to hit the ground running with the job. So it’s important from a recruiting perspective, that we recruit those skill sets similarly across the country. We have a centralized recruiting process. Although people are dispersed into the field, there is tons of centralized training on process constantly taking place. From a compliance perspective, we’re highly regulated in the airline industry. I think we do an excellent job of reaching out to diverse networks and engaging in diverse military efforts. For example, many of our pilots are military, so we have to be engaged in where that military recruiting pulse is at all times. As they’re exiting the military, they know that we’re a name they can immediately come to.

Nancy: Tell me about what attracted you to DirectEmployers? What benefits did your team find appealing?

John: DirectEmployers has been a lifesaver in many regards because they have showed us what we didn’t know. One thing we didn’t know was that delivering our jobs all the way down to that local level was so vital to our compliance needs. We have that ability to allow them to nightly scrape our jobs and we don’t have to think about it. Working with another competitor, because of the merger, we have doubled everything. Double applicant tracking, double compliance providers, my recruiters on one half of the business have to remember to go click state compliance when the post a job externally. I just wipe my brow when I think I don’t have to worry about that on the subsidiary Continental side because DirectEmployers is handling that for us. As I was looking at slides yesterday about all of the military initiatives DirectEmployers has put together… they’re not only comprehensive, but they’re diving down to the details, and really making sure that we reach as far down to the actual face-to-face conversations with those who are in the military. On top of that, a few years ago they launched a search engine optimization product –at no additional charge to us. After looking at various vendors for SEO, we said, “Let’s try what DirectEmployers is already giving to us. Nothing but benefits, without any type of additional cost.”

Nancy: Globally, our economy is such that jobs are being sought after, people need jobs. What makes you excited about doing something that is not just selling job search. You actually have the ability to impact lives.

John: You’re talking about the livelihood of the person. The right to have your job is one of the biggest freedoms in this country, the privilege of being able to offer someone a position and say, “We want you to work for our company, be a part of our culture,” in this environment, it’s an honor. Unemployment fluctuates. Look at management and unemployment is really more than 4.5%. You look at line level employment and that’s where the 9% begins. I think that we are starting to ramp up. So although you talk about that we’re shaving off on management slightly, we had the same number of planes and now we’ve doubled our planes. So we still have a need for as many flight attendants, pilots, and we’re starting to grow. The greater good part of what you’re asking, it comes back to there’s nothing better than offering someone a job who really has the skill, identifies with our culture and the motivational fit for our industry. In this economy, people are so thankful for that. And they become more loyal to you as you can show them what you can offer them benefits-wise. I think part of what the merger has shown us is what can United and Continental do to better attract and then retain our employees. The landscape is hot and competitive.

A very special thanks to John for taking time to share his story and thoughts with us. You can also catch John giving helpful advice for job seekers in a video created for the Social Jobs Partnership.

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