Akshay Loomba

Unifi VP, Head of TA Akshay Loomba

Akshay LoombaVP, Head of TA

When you are walking around an airport, you see employees doing many different things ranging from working at ticketing counters, client services, pushing people in wheelchairs, or driving them around on carts, to someone loading and off-loading baggage from an airplane. Recruiting applicants for these jobs, especially on such a large scale, requires a system that is both effective and user friendly, on either side. On the show today is Akshay Loomba, the VP and head of talent acquisition over at Unifi. Join us for an insightful conversation about their new ATS, or as Akshay calls it, the iPhone of ATS’. We also hear about Unifi the company, their services, and recruiting and onboarding processes across 200 airports in the US.

Episode Transcript


[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.

[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions, where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.

[0:00:22.7] RS: No holds barred, completely off the cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.

[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.

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[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.


[0:00:59.9] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent to Me is the vice-president and head of talent acquisition over at Unifi, Akshay Loomba. Akshay, welcome to the podcast, how are you today?

[0:01:09.5] AL: I’m doing good Rob. Thank you for inviting me on this podcast and extremely happy to be here today and guess what? Today is National Aviation Day and I think it is a great day to talk about aviation.

[0:01:22.4] RS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a fortuitous day for us to be speaking, considering who a huge chunk of Unifi’s customers are. You service most of the major American airlines, is that right?

[0:01:32.0] AL: That is right Rob, we serve all major and regional airlines also across US.

[0:01:37.5] RS: Got it. So we should get into Unifi now that we kind of explain who your customers are. Would you mind sharing a little bit about the company and then we can get into your role as well?

[0:01:47.2] AL: Right. So Unifi, I mean, the way I would explain this is that, if you walk into an airport, you see members doing your ticketing client services, members pushing wheelchairs, members lowering your bags into the airplane, sanitizing the aircrafts, de-icing in colder places of course, refueling and all of that.

So all those employees you see at the airport, they might be dressed in an airline uniform but they really are Unifi employees and servicing the airlines and we have 20,000 such employees, hardworking employees, servicing about 200 airports across US and we are today.

[0:02:29.6] RS: That is fantastic and it’s a crucial role. I mean, I’m thinking of like, everyone who works at an airport, armies of people, even from like, you say, the people who are like manning the ticketing counters all the way to you looking out the window while you’re on the plane and those like people loading in your luggage or they have the miniature lightsaber things that they’re moving around, those are all probably a good chunk of them anyway, placed by Unifi.

I’m thinking of what a recruiter for Unifi means because I don’t know if those people, stereotypically I suppose, are going o be active on LinkedIn, right? Or are going to be recruited the way that tech startups typically recruit.

[0:03:04.2] AL: Right, those are the recruiting for aviation is very different. It’s like, I mean yeah, you’re right, we will possibly hire no more than three or 4% of our employee base from LinkedIn because those are typically your airport managers and above, regional managers, duty managers and roles like that but really are a frontline recruiting, the high volume recruiting is done through a lot of, you know, from job fairs, job connects, community outreach programs.

It’s a different ballgame and I have hired a lot of IT, non-IT consulting talent in my previous assignments and this was different. This is frontline, we deal in thousands of numbers of offers on an annual basis. So I mean, I should deal in hundreds of offers and get excited. Now, we’ve adding zero to that now and then dealing in thousands of offers and joints. It’s a great industry to be in.

[0:03:53.1] RS: Yeah, of course and who is the recruiter that is successful in this kind of format? Because I assume, the way you would kind of build your team is maybe a little different than other VP’s of talent.

[0:04:03.5] AL: Right. I mean, the way you look at the recruiting world today, post pandemic, Rob, everybody’s trying to recruit or has the option to recruit from home. They have a lot of remote options. Now first of all, I’m extremely thankful and lucky to have the recruiting team, which I have today at Unifi.

I mean, these are road warriors, they will travel the length and breath of the country and willing to support and tackle problems on the fly because, every airport is unique because if you were to onboard a source at an airport, you have to get them a SIDA badge. It is SIDA badge, which is typically an airport clearance, which allows you to work inside the airport. Rules have been extremely strict after the 911 mishap.

So every airport, the onboarding process looks different. For example, if Atlanta, it takes 45 days to onboard a person, completing the whole process, in a small airport in Midwest, it could be two days and you could get the person in. So we have to tweak our processes, our approach per station and then a successful recruiter at Unifi really is someone who understands that because they would be traveling five different stations, five days of the week and then every station, they will have to kind of look at tackling the problem in a different way.

Someone who really loves people, someone who loves to problem solve, loves to travel, they have to. I mean, everybody in my team, we all love to travel. We like aviation industry in general, there’s a passion about being in the aviation industry and someone who can really appreciate high-volume recruiting and then how it is done like, if you can save a click in the hiring process, you’re not saving one click, you’re saving maybe thousands of click for thousands of those offers.

So the volume of effort, which goes in and the efficiencies you can bring in that large scale volume efficiencies is, it’s huge. Someone who really loves technology because we are going heavy on tech and we can talk more about that and then, somebody who is always trying to do models because what works in the summer hiring peak may not work in the Thanksgiving hiring spike or in the spring break hiring spike.

So every season brings its own nuances, which we got to embrace and then got to move forward. So anything and everything from the geopolitical environment, the stimulus checks, whatever happens in the economy kind of effects this industry and the way we recruit today.

[0:06:22.6] RS: Now, for you Akshay, are you in charge of hiring for Unifi itself? As well as all of the – for example, all of the staff that happens at airports, both, one or the other, what is your role exactly?

[0:06:36.2] AL: So my team hires for Unifi. So the members we hire are full-time employees of Unifi who provides services to an airline internal. One of our employees could be servicing an airline this week and could be servicing another airline the next week. It’s the contracts we have with the airlines but we provide services to our airlines, not necessarily the people.

[0:06:58.9] RS: Got it. Okay, so what’s been top of mind for you lately? What have you been working on?

[0:07:02.2] AL: So Rob, when I joined this organization about a year and a half back, we figured out that the HR tech suit, which we have from a recruiting standpoint was really not cut out for volume recruiting which we want to do because we have very ambitious plans to grow. We are the number one player in the market in this sector and we want to really grow aggressively and then for that growth, we really need to crank up the hiring engine and then the current systems or the systems we had some time back, were not cut out for that.

I mean, when I look at volume recruiting, we’re really talking about tools which gives you mass texting options, mass emailing options, running nurturing campaigns, are really able to attract, capture, and report candidate flow at various stages. So the systems we had were really not cut out for that and what ended up that my recruiters were looking at different standalone systems four, five of them, trying to stitch them together and make it work somehow.

At the same time, what happens that one of the biggest wins for Unifi is that at the same time when I came in, Unifi’s started investing in an HR tech team. Now, an HR tech team, at the core is a team which focuses on employee experience, it focuses on candidate experience. Anything which an employee touches from an HR employee lifecycle perspective and how tech can come in and support that, I think that’s the steam was getting at for our end and this team also partnered beautifully with recruiting and we started working on a blueprint of process because remember, I mentioned 200 airports each have a different process or variation of that.

So how do we bring this together and create one robust process or maybe a couple of robust processes I would say, which caters to all these airports. So it entailed a lot of interviewing, a lot of focus group discussions, a lot of workshops and we got together a process which works for us. We also put an RFP out for a new applicant tracking system, vendor, the vendor which we have paid really is a very highly customized system, which we can create for ourselves because no ATS off the shelf can cater to or speak to the airport clearance process. It’s very unique in itself.

So we had to find a system which can tweak it to any possible extent. We need to create that seamless process which works for Unifi. So we have that system now, we’ve launched it in few airports a few months back. We’ve seen instant success results from there and then we are now in the process of launching it to the rest of the 200 airports.

Now this system has all the texting tools we need, it has all the emailing mass, emailing tools we need, it has AI chat bots in it, it has self-scheduling systems, it has auto-reminders, it has actionable dashboards. I can calculate ROI off a QR code which I massively would advertise across US.

So it has those things, which the recruiting team needed to really look at how we work smart versus working really hard. So I think we are on the right path when it comes to the tech suit, which the talent acquisition team of Unifi needed and this is what I think one of the big achievements we have in the last one and a half years, of working at Unifi.

[0:10:19.9] RS: So at your scale, changing tools like this mid-stream is always going to be a huge operation. How did you know that things were at the point where that frustration of changing tools at this stage was worth it?

[0:10:34.2] AL: Yeah, so I think it goes back to the fact that if we were to scale up 2x, 3x, which is the business requirement, do I have the tools in place, which will be sufficient for the next five years of this recruiting volume, which we need to support and that was the trigger enough for us to look at that and now we’re not going ahead with the big bang approach that, “Okay, tomorrow, Monday morning, I’ll pull the plug and I’ll switch on something different and you got to start using it.”

So it’s a very meticulous, well thought-out approach where we’re launching it in phases and we are creating a core group of members who are going to be the champions of the system, who will in turn go and train each and every airport on this end. The whole rollout process will be maybe, six, seven months. I know we want to do it faster but we still want to make sure that we run the business smoothly and then we might be juggling between two applicant tracking systems for a few months but I believe this is worth the pains and perils we are going through now because in long-term, this is going to serve us extremely well.

I always call this as the iPhone of our ATS is because if you look at an iPhone, it’s extremely simple on the face of it but it’s extremely integrated and complicated at the backend. The engineering is top-notch and I think, that’s what our ATS does today. It’s user friendly, candidates can apply in 90 seconds flat, they can apply on their cellphones, they don’t have to – because we noticed that 78% of our applications are coming through cellphones.

They don’t go and open the desktops and laptops to complete the application, they are just applying on their cellphones. So we wanted to create a process, which enables them to continue the entire process and beyond as an employee, just from a cellphone app. For applying, they really need to not have an app. They just can go click a link and answer a few basic questions and boom, that’s their application complete and then, they can self-schedule themselves to come for an interview.

The systems sends them reminders, there is limited two-way intervention there and they can just follow the process and be at our doors for interview at a time, which they choose best for them. So it is really from a user perspective, it’s very intuitive to use. From a candidate perspective, it just works for them. So I don’t see a lot of problems ruling this out across our system and especially when we do it in phase wise manner, I think any system rollout should be in phase manner because you learn a lot.

The first rollout was the toughest, the second one was the easiest and the last one I know would be the smoothest.

[0:13:04.0] RS: By the way, some of these automation, texting, self-chosen interview scheduling, this can be applied I think to really any role. Like it doesn’t just have to be, “Oh, we have this mass scale of workers to provide these for” like this can be full-time employees, it can be the more corporate side of things. I don’t think you need to be at that sufficient level of skill for this to make sense for you org.

That sort of outreach to candidates and I’m glad you called out that you realized 70% of your applicants were coming through mobile. This is an important area where talent pros need to run their marketing hat a little bit, like you need to go into whatever this application is taking place. In marketing, we call it lead origin source and you scroll down to user agent, which is the device someone use.

“Oh, it’s a Mac book. Oh, it’s an iPhone. Oh, it’s an android. Oh, it’s Google Chrome. Oh, it’s…” whatever, right? You need to understand this because you can’t hope to meet people where they live unless you do. So I just wanted to call that out quickly. When you and I spoke the first time, you came out of a hotel conference room to speak to me because you were in this training with I think 30 or so leaders across your org.

You’re like, “Okay, here is the new tool, let’s do this damn thing.” How did that whole training process go for you?

[0:14:14.0] AL: Now, I think that was one of our biggest workshops we did. There were as you write 30 odd members travelling from all over US, got them in a conference room for two days. It was a hard bootcamp on the new applicant tracking system and then those 30 people are our champions now and we continue to train them over the Internet with self-help tools, with video meetings and things like that and those 30 members will then further go and train the next set of stations and then we are building a community of applicant tracking system champions within Unifi because it’s no one person’s job.

Every station, every region has to own this and we need to make sure that there’s enough and more help with our stations. Whenever they need, there is somebody there on a phone call. We’re also setting up a help desk. We are also setting up a ticketing system where they can punch in a request and there’ll be instant help coming their way. We are setting up our shared services, which would help on that. So there is a lot of support, which we are building in.

We’ve created a lot of videos, which people can just review a number of times, go back and forth on the video and just try to get to a specific point and just find out what exact help they need and it’s right there on the video there. They’re not waiting for somebody to come and tell them this. So that’s where we are right now in the implementation process.

We’ve launched in a few stations, we are looking at creating this community of champions and then we go the big bang approach in the next few months to cover a bigger section of Unifi using this ATS.

[0:15:41.3] RS: People are creatures of habit and routine even if there is a change they could make that would improve their lives. Did you experience any internal resistance when you set out on this campaign to swap software?

[0:15:57.8] AL: So Rob, not really because when we started looking at the applicant tracking system, it was not an initiative, which was done by talent acquisition or the HR tech team. The first person we spoke to was an operations leader and asking them, “What do you need in this new system? Let’s sit together and talk about it.” So we had created a company of internal employees from external advisers coming in, people from all departments really.

We spoke to operations because at the airport, the unique thing about Unifi is that every station manager, a station manager is an airport manager who leads the operations at the airport, they also recruit for themselves for their stations at a local level. Recruiters also would go and support them but if I have 200 airports, we have 200 recruiters.

So we took feedback from them as to what are the short falls in the current system, what do you want to see in the new system and it started from there. So it was our project versus, “Okay, here is a new system, use it, you like it or not, it doesn’t matter.” So it was very, very democratic approach. We kept things which we liked, we removed things which we didn’t like. As an organization, what it was served Unifi is in the applicant tracking system, so the chances of resistance is minimal in this approach.

[0:17:14.9] RS: Yeah, super important for it to come to the top down and I guess you sort of pre-emptively get around that resistance when it’s born from actual business needs. It’s like, “Look, we’d love to not change anything but the truth is, we have this bigger business goals and there’s just no way to get there with what we have.”

[0:17:31.7] AL: Right.

[0:17:33.1] RS: So I think with scale and also depending on your industry and used case, off the shelf tech rarely is going to work. It needs to be a little more custom and bespoke but when you get on the phone with these reps they’ll tell you, “Oh yeah, we can do that. We can build that for you. We can fire that up, no problem” because they’re not going to tell you no. They want your business.

So how do you know that when you are speaking to vendors, they can actually deliver on the custom things they say they can get you?

[0:18:00.2] AL: This is not new in the sales world, right? You never say no to anything but I think we also learn that let the buyer be aware, you buy what you buy and then you live with it. So I think there’s a thorough process of the RFP again, with the help of the HR tech team, we could have narrowed down to a vendor, which can cater to these needs. We got some proof of concept from them.

It was more than just this showing of presentation, we also spoke to some of their existing customers, big multinationals in US, outside US and then we spoke to them. Those were the companies we’re using these partners for many, many years and we spoke to buyers who also decline their business or discontinued their services.

So we got to hear from the ones who loved them and we also heard from the ones who didn’t and that kind of gave us a very good overview of what is the capability of this partner and what can they do for us in the aviation industry because let me also tell you this that we looked around in the aviation world, there is not much of heavy tech business going around in the world of HR. It’s still a little bit of old school. There is a little bit of tech here and there but the kind of integrated systems, which we are building at Unifi, I could safely say that it’s one of the best in the industry at the moment.

[0:19:20.4] RS: So you were able to speak with other customers and kind of get actual testimonials. What did you ask those folks?

[0:19:26.8] AL: Yeah, so we basically set up a question that okay, because we want to make sure that are they really able to customized systems and the sections for them and if you ask to what extent, of course, some shared more than the others, which is okay. We also spoke if there’s a downtime, what sort of customer support you get if the system shuts down, what would that look like and things like that.

So it was not very probing to share some of the internal stuff with us but really how does this partner behave in good and bad times and then, how has the journey has been overall.

[0:19:59.5] RS: Yeah, makes sense. I think it is just good advice for folks like if you can get that reference, that back channel before you make a huge investment, you should and if the deal size is big enough, hopefully the vendor you are speaking would encourage that but then again, it has that positivity bias because they are not going to refer you to a customer who had a bad experience. Did you do any back channeling yourself or how did you get around the positivity bias?

[0:20:21.7] AL: Yeah, so it’s like this Rob, in my mind, if my vendor reaches out to me to give a reference and if I am willing to give that, itself speaks volumes about the vendor because I am going to take out time for mine and do you seen the leaders from the other organizations. If they are able to step aside and spend half an hour with the third-party, which they have no interest in or they are not getting anything out of it, they are just doing it for the pure relationship, that itself speaks volumes to me and these are large companies. These are not small organizations.

So that itself was a comforting factor because we ask references from many of these vendors, not everybody was able to provide it and then I think the ones who did just kind of spoke to us that, “Okay, they have this relationship going on with these partners.”

[0:21:05.8] RS: Yeah, that makes sense. One, for someone who’s time is immensely valuable to take the time to do it but also they put their reputation on the line a little bit, right? If they say this thing is good and it is not, then they have sort of torpedoed their own rep.

[0:21:19.1] AL: Yeah and I have seen this, HR to HR people are generally very honest about it because they understand the problems of the department and then they are pretty honest in general. Whenever I have interacted with HR or recruiting members from the other organization, I always had very clean feedback and I think I have done the same whenever I’ve had the opportunity to do that.

[0:21:39.1] RS: Yep. I like how you mentioned that HR tech innovation is generally lagging. I’ve had that sneaking suspicion for some time now. What do you think are some areas you would like to see innovation and growth? Are there areas that you think, “Okay, we could really use a tech like XYZ at our company but it doesn’t exists in the market yet” what is the company I should found, Akshay, tell me?

[0:22:03.3] AL: No, so I think in my view, if I look at a recruiting standpoint, you could create a very tech heavy system but at the same time, it should not take away the personal touch. So I don’t think that there is anything which comes to my mind right now, which has not been done. I mean, there is so much of work, which has been done from the Silicon Valley when it comes to how do you create better job descriptions, how do you word limit your job descriptions.

It kind of gives you a real time feedback and it tells you that there’s a lot of work being done on how do you remove unconscious biases from the hiring process. So I think there are these pockets of excellence, which you see across but what I have not seen is something, which has everything in it like we use five different systems and those are five good systems but they were just, okay, one is a texting solution, one is an emailing solution.

One just help with scheduling interviews and then there is an AI chat bot system, which is company standard, right? So what we are trying to do is create something, which can make all of these systems into one place. API is a word, which has given us nightmares because we talk to one organization and you kind of connect with the other one know the API thing is not going to work. So I am not a techy but I’ve understood that whenever the word API comes, you have to be really careful because –

[0:23:22.9] RS: It can be a problem, yeah.

[0:23:23.7] AL: Yeah, these system sometimes would not work. So I think having a seamless experience, someone needs to look at the employee life cycle of a candidate to an employee, all the way to exit and all of that and then see how can you create something seamless. Of course, there is no one solution with where it kind of fits to all of the organization but something, which can be a good blueprint, which you can work on, which goes all the way from sourcing, screening candidate all the way to the end because if you have great systems but I don’t think so, you know, one which does it all.

[0:23:56.7] RS: Yeah, makes sense. Akshay, this has been a great conversation, all about how to evaluate your own organization, evaluate vendors, I think it is going to be really valuable to the folks out there in podcast land. So at this point, I would just say thank you so much for being here and doing the show with me. I’ve loved chatting with you.

[0:24:11.4] AL: Thank you, Rob, for inviting me. It was a pleasure talking to you and sharing my experiences.


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