The Use of Interviews as Part of ATCO Selection Process

The Role of Interviews

EUROCONTROL Selection Task Force (STF) has recognised that interviews are the most widely used and appreciated method for selecting candidates for ab initio controller training both by interviewers and interviewees. This source of data, together with the data obtained from standardised tests intended to gather information and impressions are used at the later stage of decision-making. The interview is also a tool to provide information to candidates. The STF is of the opinion that there is no final solution for the selection interview. In principle, different approaches to interviewing are followed. Also, it should be noted that interviews are in general a broad category of diagnostic instruments applied in the form of a specific dialogue or interaction (question and answer sessions).

Pre-Interview Process

Recruitment Strategies

Along a continuum of recruitment and selection strategies two extremes can be identified. On the one end there is a strategy which can be called “shot gun strategy”. By applying this strategy an ATS organisation would communicate the need of personnel (ab initio trainees) by some sort of announcements and would try to get as many applications as possible. The experience gained with this strategy in some European Civil Aviation Conference (European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC)) States shows that the distribution of school grades and test scores on ability tests are similar to the distribution curve of the specific population. The applicants are more or less a random sample of a specific population. Among the many applicants there will be a segment of applicants who are identified by selection procedures as being suitable for ATC work. As a result the ratio between the number of applicants and those finally accepted is very low.

At the other extreme is the strategy that demands specific knowledge of the abilities needed in ATCO work in order to succeed in ATC training. This strategy can be called “head hunting strategy” and aims to attract and select only from the segment within a population with the highest potential for successful training and the job of a controller. The difference between the two strategies is the ratio needed between the number of applications and the number of applicants who are selected for ATC training. Both strategies are used within ECAC States.

The “head hunting strategy” is cost-effective and reaches its objectives if:

- there exists a known association between specific applicant characteristics and success;

- there is a sufficient a small number of applicants who are successful in the selection system;

- the target segment perceives the ATCO work and the ATS organisation to be attractive.

Needs of the Potential Applicants

Potential applicants need:

- a job description including goals and the relevant features, requirements or characteristics of the work of controllers (i.e. monitoring visual and auditory information directly or indirectly by displays and headsets, processing information, making decisions, working under time constrains, working together in a team and during irregular working hours);

- to know the formal criteria in terms of education, age limits and other restrictions, as well as the profile of suitable candidates;

- to be aware of selection procedures and the chances of being accepted as an ATCO trainee;

- to know how and when to apply;

- to know when training starts;

- to know the duration and the content of the training;

- ideally to know the most likely placement for On-the-Job Training (OJT) and later assignment;

- to know the variety of different jobs within ATC they might enter, e.g. Area Control Centre (ACC) or Tower (TWR).

The Interview

An interview is regarded as a conversation with a clear purpose and goal. Interviewers should have decided what they want to elicit from applicants before they start the conversation. Interviews vary in type, composition and number. They can be one to one or one to several in a panel interview. The recruitment process can often involve more than one interview, either at different stages, e.g. initial sifting interview, or covering different aspects, e.g. personnel interview and technical interview. The value of an interview is that it allows information to be obtained and exchanged face to face. It also allows assessments to be made, albeit subjectively, regarding: the applicants ability to fit in the organisation and the team, their motivation about the job/organisation and their general ability to do the job. The survey of recruitment practices confirms that interviews are very widely used in the selection of ab initio trainee controllers - this method is applied in 83% of the ECAC States.

In the majority of surveyed States interviews cover the following areas:

- general motivation (88%),

- job-oriented motivation (83%),

- personality factors (75%),

- communication skills (71%),

- team skills (63%),

- biography of applicants (63%).

Another area considered in interviews is the applicants stress resistance (46%). In some ECAC States the applicants’ English conversation skills are also assessed. With regard to the interview board available data show that in 41% of the States the board members must undergo specific training. Techniques such as the use of standard questions, a standard marking system or standard assessment form are used in around a quarter of the States. On average, an interview board consists of three members. The average length of an interview is about one hour.

Role of the Interviewer

Interviews are supposed to assess certain qualities of candidates which are relevant for the subsequent training success and employment. However, interviews are not meant to directly predict these future achievements from the answers given by applicants as a response to a certain question. This aspect is particularly important since some interviewers believe that they could directly “see” from an interview whether an applicant “would make a good controller or not”. There is in fact no sound evidence for such an assumption. Interviewers should therefore act as a kind of instrument to assess certain characteristics of applicants. Research has found that effective interviewers closely follow prescribed rules for the interview.

The following general principles apply with regard to the function and ability of interviewers:

a) Interviewers need to know clearly and precisely what characteristics or qualities of applicants should be assessed and how to assess them.

b) Interviewers need regular and specific interviewer training.

c) Interviewers can assess certain qualities of applicants better (i.e. more reliably) than others. Interviewers can, for example, assess English language skills more reliably than social skills of applicants. This should be taken into consideration in the design of the interview.

d) Interviewers are more able to assess certain qualities of candidates than to make a prediction with regard to the future success of the applicants. For example, they can assess social skills and motivation of applicant but they cannot directly predict whether applicants will be able to separate aircraft by using radar data.

Interview Panels

Board or panel interviews are slightly more reliable and hence their use increases the validity compared to individual (one-to-one) interviews. However, evidence from research has shown this effect is relatively small in case of well-structured interviews. In case of structured interviews, the one-to-one interview is often the preferred practice. The interview panel can include trained ATCOs, psychologists or both, or other trained personnel.

Types of Interviews

The most common types of interviews used are structured, biographical and situational.

Unstructured Interview

The unstructured interview is still used to evaluate candidates. Although this type of interview is not normally recommended due to its lack of standardisation it may have the benefit of revealing information that would not be made visible when using a completely structured approach.

Structured Interview

In a structured interview a series of questions is given to each applicant in order to obtain information on specific job-related criteria. The criteria are often developed by means of a job analysis which allows the behaviouristic patterns of excellent job performers to be identified. For example the analysis may show ‘team orientation’ to be an important criterion. Applicants would therefore be asked a series of questions aimed at demonstrating their strengths and weaknesses in team skills. The strength of this type of interview is that since the questions are based on an analysis of the job, they are relevant to the requirements of the job. The information collected by the interview can be evaluated on a scale against the relevant criteria. Certain weaknesses in this kind of interview may be identified, namely:

- It depends on a reliable job analysis having been undertaken;

- It can often be quite time consuming to allow for all the established criteria to be covered;

- Aspects of the applicants work/education history may not be covered.

Biographical Interview

A biographical interview looks in a chronological way at the applicant’s past experience in work, education and personal life. The assumption is that the past will give a good prediction of future behaviour. This is perhaps the most commonly used interview, often being used for first stage screening. Its strength is that it provides a complete picture of the applicant both in work and personal life. Its weakness is that, not being related to the job, irrelevant questions can be asked which could lead to discrimination under equal opportunities legislation.

Situational Interview

In a situational interview applicants are asked a series of highly structured, pre-determined and normally hypothetical job-related questions. The applicants’ answers are scored against a set of example answers. The strengths of this type of interview are that all applicants receive identical questions and the information obtained from the applicant is evaluated in a very structured way. As the interview is based on job situations, it is viewed as having high face validity. It has also been found that the situational interview has a good level of predictive validity. The weakness of this type of interview is that, as with the structured interview, work history may not be fully explored, applicants can find the formality of the interview unfriendly and putting-off, and some applicants may be able to determine the type of answer the interviewer will score favourably. This type of interview is also time consuming and expensive to develop.


Many studies have been made into the reliability and validity of the interview as a selection tool. Reliability can be either the consistency of decisions made by an interviewer if s/he were to re-interview an applicant or, in a panel situation, the extent to which different interviewers give a particular applicant the same rating.

Research has shown that, in general, there are low levels of consistency between the ratings, indicating that interviewers are not assessing the same information. However, interviews have been shown to have low but positive validity in future work success. The structured interview with job criteria has the greatest predictive validity. Despite the weaknesses noted above, the interview is a common and expected part of a selection process. A poorly conducted interview may significantly damage an applicant’s view of the organisation or may lead to a poor selection decision. To minimise such developments, interviewers should be fully trained in interviewing techniques, should have a clear view of the objectives of the interview and a structured method of recording interview notes and final decisions. An interview board could comprise at least two team members and not more than five. It is recommended that at least one ATCO from an operational unit be involved in interviewing.


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