I woke up today to an email from my alma mater. The headline read “FAA to Hire 1,400 Air Traffic Controllers”. I immediately burst out laughing but within a few minutes that turned to tears. I had been waiting for that email for about 24 years.
Back when I started attending college, the country was heading into a recession. I was one of the unlucky generations to walk out of college into an atmosphere of zero opportunities. You could see it coming from a mile away. I had several extremely talented friends with business degrees struggling just to land a job at a fast food chain. I felt the urgency to start researching what the next promising field could be. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.
When I was a kid, about 10,000 air traffic controllers went on strike and President Regan promptly fired them all when they refused to go back to work. There was still a void out there that needed to be filled. In the news there were stories about a massive growth in the air traffic to come. The technology was changing and there would be a huge need for new controllers. The added bonus was that now you needed a 4 year degree, post strike, and I could get it through the Aviation Management Program at Auburn University. At the time, it was part of Auburn’s Aerospace Engineering School and I knew that would make my civil engineer of a dad happy. He’s so practical!
Aviation Management was awesome. I had classes I didn’t even know were possible and learned things that I still haven’t forgotten. Like how to compare and contrast a Wankel Engine with a reciprocating and a jet engine. I’m still waiting for that to come up as topic on jeopardy. My first class was simply titled “Reciprocating Engines”. That one was followed by “Vehicle Operation Systems”. I started having a basic understanding of why my car had a lag (fuel injection) and it was fascinating to have this whole new world of mechanics opened up to me rather than just spreadsheets and reports. On my first day of class, I realized I was one of just 3 women. It was a little terrifying. It was the atmosphere of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and I remember being the only person in class to raise their hand when the professor asked who believed Anita Hill was telling the truth.
When I wasn’t in class, I was taking photographs. I had my first “real” job as a photographer. I was a “Zap Girl” as we were called then by all the screaming sorority girls. We were hired to shoot everything under the sun from fraternity parties to 5K races and graduations from local high schools to Tuskegee University. I was actually paid to go to parties and it turned out to be such a great experience.
College was also an education to say the least. When it was time to graduate we were all waiting for the Civil Service Exam dates to try to get a space in the Air Traffic Control Program in Oklahoma City. I never got a shot to take the exam. It came around once during finals – I wasn’t ready – and I opted to study for finals thinking it would continue coming up again every three months. It didn’t. The recession was in full swing and the current President, Bill Clinton, ended up pardoning the controllers who struck back in the 80’s. The waiting game began.
As I graduated and starting looking for jobs, airlines were folding and merging to try to stay afloat. Eastern Airlines and Braniff closed their doors and Delta, the big employer of the South, was on a perpetual hiring freeze. My first year out of college I had 7 temp jobs trying to piecemeal a wage together. I became the queen of the “temporary employment agency” and I would continuously check to see if the Civil Service Exam was being offered somewhere, anywhere. At some point I quit checking. I starting working for telecom companies through my temp jobs, moved on to work for a young, amazing entrepreneur for whom I travelled the country and then eventually I ended up with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and their Surgery Consulting Division. Who knew. J&J was ultimately how I made my way to Alaska. My first job as a “Zap Girl” was ultimately how I found my career.
Aviation did come in handy in one respect, though. My Air Force husband says it was the swing dancing that cinched the deal but I’m sure it was my snappy response to his question about what those blue lights were for next to the runway. It was our first “flying date” in his plane and he had completely forgotten that I spent 4 years of college studying this junk. Life is truly an adventure.