There are a lot of us right now who thought we’d be CFIs by now. I’m not, and I think there are probably 500 or more CFIs who are in the same position. Probably the worst part of our shared situation is that we’re having to take non-flying jobs to keep our cars, pay the rent, and keep up on our loan payments. This feels like a major set back. When I was in school, I had instructors who came from construction–roofing, concrete, and just general construction work–who thought they were finished with that world the day they finished their CFI. All of them had to go back to working those jobs though, at least for a few months.
I was the same way. I’d been telling my employer for 2 years that I would be leaving the day I got a job flying. I took a diminishing role in managing the accounts I worked on, and I trained my replacement. (Fortunately, the first replacement didn’t work out, and I stayed on another year while they hired another editor.) But now it’s been 10 months since I finished my CFI. My replacement with my former employer has settled in and I don’t have any additional work with them. I have another editing job starting any day now, but in a down economy, companies are tight with money, even for work that has to get done. In the interim, I’ve picked up any kind of odd job that I can, and that’s what I was doing yesterday….
Our neighbor runs a small farm that he grows hay on, and this week was his fourth hay cutting. You might think this is as simple as cut the hay, bale the hay, stack the hay, and you’d mostly be right. Baling the hay though is a balancing act. On the one hand, farmers get paid more for green hay with the leaves still attached. Dry, sun-bleached stems don’t fetch much. The balance though is that wet-baled hay composts, generating enough heat that it can ignite adjacent dry bales. This really happens, and just about every year around here, some farmer’s stacked bales burn because of one wet bale, at best robbing him of thousands of dollars of income (and at worst, destroying another crop or equipment). I won’t make an attempt to get into all the variables, but on baling day, the difference between a good bale and a bad bale is mostly determined by the amount of dew present. A little dew keeps the leaves on the stems, but too much can lead to a hotspot. For each day of baling, there’s only a few-hours window where just the right amount of dew is present to make baling productive, and when the right dew set is present, the farmer is rushing to get as much hay baled as possible.
And that is what I’ve been doing. When the farmer thinks the right amount of moisture is present, he starts baling. If he’s right, he doesn’t want to stop since the dew is either coming down or evaporating off; if he’s wrong, he needs to stop as soon as possible so he doesn’t tie up hay in bales that won’t be worth much. While he’s baling, he has me chasing along behind him, measuring the moisture in each bale. The job description isn’t too glamorous, and on first look it might seem to be absolutely useless from the perspective of eventually landing a flying job. I spent the day racing around on an ATV, poking a bale, and recording the moisture. I could simply list this on my resume as what I did “Bale poker: Measured moisture in hay bales during harvest.” This would be a useless, wasted line on a resume. I could also look more closely at what the job actually entails, and in that examination maybe find skills that would be valuable for another employer. Looking at my bale poking, sometimes you’ll be working with several balers, in the dark, around untipped bales, and assisting with field maintenance and repair on the balers. Keeping from running into somebody else, not getting pinned under a falling bale, or losing a finger in the equipment takes continuous attention to what you’re doing. The moisture probe is expensive, sensitive, and fragile, and is critical to the task at hand. The job is time-sensitive, and one bale poker can barely keep up with one baler. Hiring more cuts into the bottom line by increasing labor expenses and operating costs. Most importantly though, the lowly bale poker has a critical role in determining the profitability of the harvest. In the 5 minutes that I have to assess a bale, I need to make a decision whether the bale is too dry and isn’t going to be decent enough quality. I also need to decide whether the average moisture of the bale is too high. You get about 10 measurements to figure this out, and your typical problem bale will look good except for one or 2 high readings. You’re typical good bale looks about the same as a bale that’s too wet or too dry, and you need to decide whether it’s a trend or due to some local variation in where the hay came from (like a low spot where the dew came in sooner) or because the weather conditions have changed. Did you find a small, wet spot or is this going to be the bale that lights up the stack? While I’m figuring this out, the balers are still going. Even though the farmer is actually the one running the heavy equipment, he’s relying on me to alert him to conditions that could make or break the harvest for him.
How to Advance Your Aviation Career with a Useless Job
Bale poker seems to be about the most unrelated job to flying helicopters, as does construction, web design, and fast-food. With that outlook it’s hard to see how what you’re doing now is going to help you land a job in the cockpit. The trick is to dissect your actual job from its constituent responsibilities. Take one of my instructors who worked as a roofer. On the shallowest level, he installed roofs. But he also was responsible for driving his crew to job sites, transporting materials around the job site with a forklift, and getting up 2-3 stories to do his job. He did it for years without a single job-site accident. Instead of describing himself on his resume as a guy who swings a hammer, he should really have been selling himself as somebody who has the wherewithal to operate safely in a hazardous environment. And that, of course, directly relates to a job flying a helicopter. Having this insight about your useless, non-flying jobs is going to help you out. If you frame your non-aviation experience in terms of skills that will help you be a better pilot, you’re going to set yourself apart from others who can’t see past the fact that they should be flying instead of ____________.