Graduate Plus: Plane speaking

As the number of its foreign customers grows, a British airline prepares to court language graduates. Stephen Pritchard looks to the skies

Communications skills are common enough characteristics among graduate linguists, but few students expect to use their qualifications a mile above the Atlantic.

A new recruitment drive announced last month by British Airways, however, will drastically increase the number of graduates working as cabin crew. For the first time, the airline will target universities and colleges in a search for more than 1,000 cabin staff and customer service positions.

BA needs to do this because its customers have changed - 60 per cent of the airline's revenue now comes from overseas. The airline's management freely admits that the company has found it difficult to recruit linguists of the right calibre in the past, which is why the airline is looking at graduates. "In years gone by, we have struggled to hire people with language skills," BA spokesman David Wilson says. "We have more foreign people travelling on our aircraft, so we have to speak their mother tongues."

BA's recruitment drive is in addition to the airline's established graduate training scheme. This does not require language skills, although they are certainly an advantage: a stint in an overseas office, or as cabin crew, is part of the programme.

The airline already has a number of graduates working as cabin crew and in customer services who have come up "through the ranks".

Ellen Dyball studied French and English literature at Edinburgh University, and worked as a waitress in Switzerland before college. Her current post is as a fleet co-ordinator for 747 aircraft, which involves the day-to- day management of cabin staff.

Working as cabin staff will not suit everyone, Ms Dyball admits. Graduates thinking of applying need to be realistic. Crews are rostered, and may not know their destinations until the pre-flight briefing. Working on flights means being with 15 strangers, and trips can be as long as 11 days.

"It is a wonderful job to do while the novelty is there," Ms Dyball admits, "but I like to have a little more control over my life."

BA's recruitment drive is good news for language graduates. Elsewhere in the travel industry, opportunities for linguists can be scarce. Skills such as business acumen or a knowledge of customer service are ranked above languages by many recruiters. Pay in the sector can be poor, and seasonal jobs are common.

Few companies are large enough to support a formal graduate training scheme. "There are big players in the holiday business, but there is a huge group of cottage industries," explains Andrew Whitmore, careers adviser at Manchester University.

"Graduates do go and work for these smaller companies," he says. "The way to do it is to work as a courier for a season; you might be fortunate enough to be kept on. But they don't have many staff working for them out of season."

Thomson Holidays has one of the travel industry's longer-established graduate training schemes, but languages are not a core requirement. Reps in the company's resorts need languages on a daily basis - Spanish and (modern) Greek are prized. Buyers who negotiate with hoteliers may need language skills.

Hands-on experience, not a specific degree, is the travel industry's key requirement whether working as a travel agent or as cabin crew. "It is seriously encouraged to get your hands dirty and meet the customers, either going into the terminals or working on an aircraft," Ellen Dyball at BA points out. "You have to get out there, see what it is like, and what the business is about"n

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