Internal mobility is creating a stronger workforce for Delta Air Lines.

Skills development is allowing an airline’s employees to soar

Delta Air Lines wants to leverage the perspective of its frontline workforce

With so many employers bemoaning the lack of workers and job seekers with particular in-demand skills, some businesses are looking inward for opportunities to build the workforce they need to be competitive.

Internal mobility opportunities are impactful not just for employees, but for business, as well, according to Brian Wright, director of global leadership, learning and development, Delta Air Lines.

“Instead of just focusing on previous jobs or academic achievements, we can assess and develop our people in ways that support their career goals while also fulfilling our internal operational needs,” says Wright who adds that the focus on skills development “is really about equity.”

He notes, “That focus on skills, quite frankly, will allow us to not just only be more consistent and transparent with how we approach and grow our people, but also more targeted and intentional. What we hope is as we continue to do that, and do that successfully, it will lift our people up and then, ultimately, that translates into pay equity, which positively impacts families, communities, and society.”

Wright says the pandemic was a wake-up call for the airline, “I think every company who made it through that period obviously did some deep thinking about how can we become more optimized? How can we become more efficient?

“One of the things that we recognized is we needed to enhance our technology as a business enabler for us. That’s a direct contributor to our skills-first transformation – being able to link our jobs to skills, to development and opportunity for our people.”

Brian Wright, director of global learning and leadership development, Delta Air Lines

He continues, “It’s not a referendum on degrees. We want people to maintain the level of education and seek the level of education that they desire. We know there are certain roles that will require that advanced degree, but we also know that there are a number of different cases and examples of where people learn on-the-job, and they become extremely successful.”

Internal Pathways

“We have an abundance of talent in our frontline – about 60,000 strong – that know our customer base better than anybody else. We want to leverage that perspective,” says Wright.

“We want to know more about the skills that they have outside of the jobs that they have today, and we want to leverage that perspective into our commercial and corporate strategies to benefit our customers even further.”

Among Delta’s frontline employees are customer-facing, hourly workers – flight attendants, mechanics, and gate agents.

In 2022, Delta launched three new cohorts as part of the apprenticeship programs. Wright explains, “We cast a wide net around what will work, what we found is the highest success rate, those more technical roles that allowed us to have peer mentors and projects where we can leverage that talent across functionally.”

There are a number of apprenticeship tracks, including business, technology, data, and operational. Wright explains, “All of the tracks span 12 months with the exception of our technology track, which is 18 months.”

He points out, in the first year, there were just over 10,000 applicants for apprenticeship opportunities, with some employees applying to more than one apprenticeship role. “I think it’s the best example of integration and partnership that I think we’ve seen from a talent learning space at Delta since the pandemic.

“We leverage our internal business resource groups and employee involvement groups to get the word out. We did different information sessions with leaders and employees so they could ask us questions about what the program was, answer their questions around what the pay impact would be by virtue of that experience,” says Wright. “It really was a grassroots, on-the-ground effort, leveraging every channel that we had internally from a communications perspective.”

He also notes there were three cohorts as part of the three-semester Delta Analytics Academy. “The Academy is run in partnership with Georgia State University to build data analytics, data science, and broad data analysis skills.”

Wrights says the partnership with GSU has been crucial, “They’ve also partnered with us to be able to take that curriculum and put it through our internal development portfolio so we can scale development opportunities across the company, not just for people within the program.”

Wright says, “There are certain roles that are really beneficial from an apprenticeship model, but there are other roles and other skills that could benefit more from just a steady churn of pipeline building, and that’s what we’re focused on as we go into that experience into 2025.”

In the first year across the apprenticeship programs and the Analytics Academy, there were 100 participants.

One Employee’s Upward Track

Sanassa Diane began at Delta in reservations where she assisted the airline’s elite passengers. Originally based in Cincinnati, Diane recalls that a couple months into the job, “They flew my entire class out to our general office. I just remember the feeling of being in awe. It looked like a college campus. It was just like Delta Central.

Sanassa Diane, senior analyst in corporate sales development, Delta Air Lines

“I thought to myself, ‘I want to work here one day.’”

She explains that 4-1/2 years later, she was looking at Delta’s employee-only website where she learned of the opportunities for frontline employees to transition into full-time positions. “It was right there on the front page. They were looking to start this program and they really wanted to focus on diversity and inclusion, and allow people who have the capability, the skills to be able to be in [a salary-based] position.”

Diane – who started her apprenticeship in January 2023 – is now a senior analyst in Delta’s corporate sales development. “Essentially, my job is to support the sellers and the sellers are customer-facing. They face the accounts, so we assist with building compatible contracts with corporations, large entities that have employees that travel. My job is to create a contract that’s compatible enough so that they choose us as opposed to our competition.”

She says, “I think communication has always been my strong suit. However, I think the thing that I’m using the most is my discretion. I have a lot of discretion in being able to determine what would be beneficial for what account. And so I’m working on that. It’s a work in progress, but I have 100% improved.”

Diane explains, “In the beginning I was going through imposter syndrome. I felt like, ‘Oh my God, who left the back door open and let me sneak in?’”

But she gives credit to the support from her direct report, “It helped me navigate through those feelings and reassure myself that I did belong in these spaces, and I do have something to contribute. I want the readers to know that the program itself works hand-in-hand with different departments within Delta to make this possible for us.”

Diane and her family recently relocated to Atlanta – working full-time while she works to complete, in May, her undergraduate degree in IT with a concentration in database management. 

Despite her busy schedule, Diane says, “I would do it all over again, 100%. My work-life balance has increased tremendously. A lot of the people in my department are parents, and so when I was making my decision, I really wanted to be in a department where having kids isn’t unfamiliar. It’s changed the complete trajectory of my life.”

‘There are other people behind me’

Wright says the generational impact of these opportunities is key, “It’s the ultimate driver because for our people. They’re defining their success, their ability to enrich their careers and mobilize internally in the spaces where they want to go. Our biggest focus here is to provide that level of agency to our people.”

He also mentions additional skills-first initiatives within the airline. “We’ll be launching a ton of change-management curriculum to help leaders, talent recruiters, talent managers, and HR VPs be able to develop and hire – rooted in a skills-first mindset.”

Wright does not hesitate to point out that mindset comes from the top. “A sponsor of all this work is Ed Bastian, the airline’s CEO. He’s the one that accelerated it.”

He explains, “We started this work pre-pandemic, but we didn’t have the true investments at the time that we needed, particularly around the technology that was necessary to do this work that we needed. [With the start of the pandemic], Ed declared that this was a priority for us.

“We’re lucky in that we have such a great leader in Ed. He’s a leader amongst his peers in the industry.”

Diane shares that she values most how Delta prioritizes inclusivity and diversity, “I like to say that just because you are the first person to do something doesn’t mean you’re the last. So just being a representation of an African American, a Muslim woman with a hijab on, and just being able to be in these spaces – knowing that I won’t be the last. There are other people behind me and I’m opening doors for people that may look like me, sound like me, act like me, come from where I come from. It’s everything for me.”

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