• Lara Baker went from instructing at Class D towers to compliance auditor. (Phil Vabre)
    Lara Baker went from instructing at Class D towers to compliance auditor. (Phil Vabre)

– Rosemarie John 

An air traffic controller trades in her radio, flight progress strip display and aviation phraseology for regulatory compliance audits, Microsoft Office and the daily battle with the office printer.

This is Lara Baker’s career trajectory at Airservices Australia but also a story of workplace diversity and career transitioning within the aviation industry.

Diversity is very important at Airservices Australia. Regardless of age, race, gender, backgrounds or other areas of potential difference, Airservices employs people across a wide range of positions.

Where it all began

When Lara read a recruitment advertisement for air traffic controllers in the 90s, it prompted her to think about her goals and career plans.

Reading the list of required attributes and thinking it resonated with her own talents, Lara determined that a challenging career in aviation was the way to go.

Lara left her banking job after making it through the Airservices recruitment process and went on to work as an air traffic controller. First in Cairns, then in Parafield, Coffs Harbour, Tamworth and Canberra Tower.

Eighteen years later, including a stint as an Instructor for Metro D Towers, Lara says life took a slight turn: “Medical issues affected my ability to continue as an air traffic controller. I soon realised that change was imminent.”

Career transitioning

Considering her options, Lara kept a close eye on available positions within Airservices. She also decided it was time to learn a new skill and applied for an auditing position.

“I was successful in my application for a 12-month role as an auditor in regulatory compliance. But the option of returning to Air Traffic Control (ATC) also presented itself,” Lara said.

“After deliberation with family, I felt the best option for me was to take the audit position.”

Transitioning to a nine-to-five corporate reporting job was not easy for Lara. After nearly two decades of working a roster, directing the safe movements of aircraft on runways and taxiways, the new corporate work schedule seemed daunting.

“I had been a shift worker for the majority of my career. And I am finding it a huge adjustment getting my life to ‘work’ Monday to Friday. I find, I have a lot less time to do things for myself, or around the house. It is also more difficult to attend doctor, dentist or hairdresser appointments,” Lara explained.

“The learning curve has also been very steep. I had very minimal administration responsibilities in the past. And with no report writing experience, it added a bit of complexity to my learning the functions of my new role.”

“The audit team have been mentoring and assisting me, making my transition as easy as possible. We are a very close and supportive team.”

The new workplace – from tower to office

Lara’s role within the audit team is to perform regulatory compliance audits related to CASA parts: e.g. Part 139H, 171 and 172. They are also supplemented by subject matter experts from the respective service delivery areas.

Speaking on the idea of hiring a former air traffic controller, audit manager Michael del Castillo said: “We have been considering supplementing our unit’s skills through seconding staff for some years now. It was nice to know that the business also thought this approach was a good idea.”

“When we had an auditor resign, it was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. We weren’t specifically focussed on getting an air traffic controller on board, but that’s the way it turned out,” Michael explained.

Lara is now responsible for performing compliance audits across the Aviation Rescue and Fire Fighting Service, Air Traffic Control and Maintenance and Service (M&S) sites. She helps to evaluate whether they are meeting the requirements of various standards, policies and procedures.

“This process helps to determine if Airservices is managing its risks and help identify opportunities for improvement,” Lara said.

Managing change

A new role with new work processes inevitably stood out initially to Lara.

“The biggest difference I find, is that when I walked away from the control tower at the end of a shift, my work was done. I had nothing to think about until my next shift. With audit, there is always something left unfinished, I have a constant rotation of audits that overlap each other, never having a sense of completion. What’s similar though, is that both roles require attention to detail and performing to a very high standard,” Lara said.

Lara generally has two different types of work days. Office days, where she gathers information from multiple work groups to help determine what focus is needed before visiting a site. And then, there’s fieldwork days, where a subject matter expert and Lara travel to an audit location.

“So far, I have visited two fire stations, a control tower and two M&S sites. When on site, I spend a few days talking to staff, observing the work being undertaken and gather evidence of compliance or non-compliance,” Lara explained.

In a multi-faceted aviation environment, career transitioning also plays a beneficial role. It promotes a culture of employee-owned career planning and development.

Lara’s experience as an air traffic controller has helped her adapt to her new audit role. “My existing ATC skills gives me an understanding of what I am seeing, and a depth of knowledge that an auditor may not generally have. I am able to discuss and understand more of what I observe, and consider implications and ask questions that someone without my background may not otherwise be aware of,” she said.

Speaking on the benefits of having a former air traffic controller on the team, Michael said: “Regardless of the area that Lara performs audits in, it’s her innate ability to look at a situation through an operational mindset that is of value to us.”

“Lara is able to relate what she sees through her experiences and highlight connections that we may not otherwise see. Having an operationally experienced person as part of the team also brings credibility and improves engagement levels out at sites. In effect, Lara is seen as ‘one of them’ which helps to break down barriers as they know that she understands their situation,” Michael added.

The world of audit

There is always something happening, new people to meet and constant learning in the world of audit.

“After several months of being in the audit team, I understand far more about how Airservices works ‘behind the scenes’ and the amount of work that goes in to making the operational side of the business work smoothly,” Lara said.

While Lara admits that she has been challenged at times with the lack of administrative and report writing skills, she has received a lot of guidance and constructive criticism which led her to put in extra effort to improve her abilities.

“What I find inspiring about my new role is my team’s willingness to mentor and assist each other and their passion to help improve the areas of Airservices they audit.”

Audit manager Michael del Castillo said: “No longer are we just compliance checkers looking backwards, but more risk and objectives-focussed with a strong understanding of our business. Whilst compliance with regulations is an important aspect of itself, the ability to put situations into the service delivery context is critical if we are to continue to provide value to the organisation.”

Diversity and inclusion

Lara recollects the time when she had to make this career path decision, basically reinventing herself: “Necessity was my driver but with a lot of support from my family, friends, acquaintances and workmates, I was able to make this huge career shift.”

“The year leading up to my career change was the most challenging I have faced professionally to date. I discovered just how many people in my personal and professional life were willing to help and support me. Since deciding on this path, I am sure it was the right choice.”

“My advice to those thinking of changing careers, throw yourself into the change and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Lara adds.

Airservices fosters diversity and supports the physical and psychological safety of their staff. As an innovative organisation in a rapidly changing environment, Airservices needs people with different genders, backgrounds, cultures and work and life experiences to support their ability to anticipate and respond to industry change.

Michael adds: “I think that career transitioning is a fantastic opportunity that enables people to stay fresh and open doors that may not otherwise have been available, or create paths that may never have been envisioned. In this way both the individual and the organisation benefit.”

If you’re considering making a change to your career path, start by evaluating what you want to be doing, and what job would make you feel fulfilled. Visit the Airservices Australia careers page to view current opportunities.

Airservices is a member organisation of Diversity Council Australia – an independent not-for-profit peak body leading diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Rosemarie John is a communications officer at Airservices Australia. This story was supplied by Airservices Australia.

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