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Air Canada flights sit on the tarmac at the recently opened YEG control tower at the Edmonton, International Airport in Leduc, Alberta. NAV CANADA air traffic controllers sit high atop the tower, with a clear view of the airspace, runways and taxiways. Controllers are also using the latest technology. Photo taken March 14, 2014. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Air Canada flights sit on the tarmac at the recently opened YEG control tower at the Edmonton, International Airport in Leduc, Alberta. NAV CANADA air traffic controllers sit high atop the tower, with a clear view of the airspace, runways and taxiways. Controllers are also using the latest technology. Photo taken March 14, 2014. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

SALARIES SERIES

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Job: Air traffic controller

The role: Air traffic controllers co-ordinate the movement of airplanes, making sure they stay a safe distance apart, says Leslie Calhoun, national manager of on-the-job training programs at Nav Canada and a former air traffic controller. The job’s focus is primarily on safety, but also to help keep flights running efficiently and on time. “There are no traffic signs or stop lights in the air, so the air traffic controllers are organizing the flow of the airplanes within the airport and between airports,” she says. There are two different types of controllers, those who work in the control towers at the airport and those who work in a separate control centre.

Salary: Pay starts at about $64,000 annually and can increase to about $145,000 depending on experience. Those being trained to receive their air traffic controller licence are paid about $35,000 annually.

Education: You need a high school diploma to apply to be an air traffic controller, but Ms. Calhoun warns it’s a highly competitive field and most successful applicants have more education or life experience. Air traffic controllers undergo about two years of training before receiving their licence from Transport Canada. Training includes about a year of classroom and simulation work, with frequent testing along the way, then a final year working alongside a licensed air traffic controller.

By the numbers: There are more than 1,900 air traffic controllers at Nav Canada, which is the private owner and operator of the country’s air navigation service. Nav Canada owns and operates all 41 air traffic control towers and seven area control centres in the country, where air traffic controllers work. Its employees manage 12 million aircraft movements a year for 40,000 aircraft customers, including major airlines, private planes and helicopters, covering more than 18 million square kilometres. Nav Canada says that makes it the world’s second-largest air navigation service provider by traffic volume.

Job prospects: Moderate. There is always a steady demand owing to attrition, Ms. Calhoun says, but competition for jobs is stiff and not everyone makes it through the training. Nav Canada usually has about 60 to 80 training seats open across the country each year.

Challenges: There is a lot of shift work, including early mornings, late nights, weekends and holidays. The training can also be gruelling, Ms. Calhoun says. “In this job, you really need to retain almost all of the information you receive in training because you will use it every day.…You also need to be alert, very self-confident and decisive.”

Why they do it: It interesting and challenging to most people, and it’s a stable job, Ms. Calhoun says. “People typically find it’s exciting to be part of the aviation industry.” The pay is also good and the hours are flexible.

Misconceptions: It’s not as stressful as it appears in Hollywood portrayals of the job, Ms. Calhoun says. “It’s a high-performing job and you do need to be on your toes,” she says. “Some people find that stressful, but most of our controllers do not. They thrive on it.”

Give us the scoop: Are you an air traffic controller? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

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