Name: Capt. Mike Barger
Title: Vice President, Chief Learning Officer, JetBlue University
Company: JetBlue Airways Corp.
- Centralized training and education into JetBlue University, which administers training for company disciplines, enabling JetBlue to manage assets and standardize education. Learning and development has been incorporated into JetBlue U, as opposed to HR placement, leading to exceptional working relationships among operations, JetBlue U and HR.
- Incorporates five core values—safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion—into every aspect of education.
- Provides centralized crew-member education in common topics with common courses, creating a strong team orientation and commitment to a greater corporate good.
- Provides Company Resource Management (CRM) education—JetBlue’s unique approach to innovation and communication. CRM lets crew members know they are crucial to long-term success by being productive, creative, innovative and proactive.
- Educated more than 600 JetBlue leaders in organically produced Principles of Leadership education program, facilitated entirely by corporate officers. This education raised awareness of effective leadership and raised the bar of accountability.
- Incorporated modern technology into educational philosophy.
Learning Philosophy: “At JetBlue U, our goal is to provide our crew members the tools they need to succeed. Naturally, these tools include the technical aspects of each crew member’s responsibilities, which are vitally important to our heavily regulated and safety-driven industry. Just as important, however, is the inculcation of our crew members in our unique corporate culture. In my view, at least half of our educational effectiveness depends on our ability to exemplify and cultivate this culture in our crew members.”
It’s certainly not a stretch to say flying is in Mike Barger’s blood. Not only is the JetBlue AirWays’ vice president and chief learning officer an experienced pilot himself, he also grew up near an airport, the son of a pilot and a flight attendant. Factor in 13 years flying for the U.S. Navy, and you’ve got a well-rounded executive who’s right at home both in the hallways of corporate headquarters and in the narrow aisles of jumbo jets.
But flying is only part of Barger’s passion; education also factors in strongly. Combining the two seemed a logical choice for the former Navy “Top Gun” instructor, who left the service in late 1998, resigning as a lieutenant commander. Barger’s distinguished career took him from combat fighting in the Middle East and Eastern Europe to his instructor work teaching F/A-18 munitions, targeting and radar systems.
Not surprisingly, Barger sees a clear link between corporate education at JetBlue University and flight training at the Navy Fighter Weapons School.
“We spent a ton of time there trying to create as high a level of standardization as possible so that you could work with any other aircraft commander or crew member and all be speaking the same language,” Barger said. “We actually apply that same standardization here across JetBlue U. In fact, I would say that being able to bring together a centralized training department has allowed us to really focus on standardizations across disciplines. Given that we are a very safety-sensitive industry, the fact that we can all speak the same language with a pretty high level of standardization, that really helps us to stay coordinated and be able to work together.”
Working together is a theme that comes up often in conversation with Barger. That’s to be expected when you consider not only where he’s been, but how far Barger and JetBlue have come in five years.
Barger joined JetBlue in 1999 as director of training for the startup airline, when his brother Dave Barger was signing on as president. At the time, JetBlue was called New Air, and Barger was one of two people in the training department. The airline officially took to the skies in February 2000, and things have been growing up since then.
Now, Barger oversees about 108 faculty members at JetBlue U, serving the needs of the company’s approximately 6,300 crew members. By the end of this year, Barger expects to direct about 140 on-staff instructors.
“It really is all about the education and training of your crew members,” Barger said. “Nothing is sadder than a crew member who’s failing because they didn’t have an opportunity to succeed. That’s just not pretty.
“What we’re really teaching here is not so much the how-to skills, the classic technical training skills, as much as we’re building a toolbox to help people make really good decisions for themselves and for the company,” Barger said.
Barger’s military background brought disciplines to his career that he’s built upon. But he’s learned things can differ in the private sector. Military feedback was a little more immediate.
“You never had to wonder were they getting it or not getting it, which I think is one of the typical challenges for corporate education,” Barger said. “I think what it did more than anything else is it really taught me to student-center my approach to teaching. No matter how much I thought I knew how to teach something, the proof is really in what I saw from my students.”
In the airline industry, training isn’t a luxury, but a mission-critical and mandated necessity. JetBlue trains its people accordingly, with programs ranging from new-hire orientation to annual training programs for pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, reservations agents and baggage handlers. The company currently flies 48 planes, but the 403 on order shows growth is definitely on the horizon.
Part of that success, Barger said, is the alignment of JetBlue’s culture in all workforce development initiatives. Barger himself has done it all at the airline—from flying (he’s still a pilot) to loading baggage. That well-rounded view of the company is no accident.
“It’s important that your fellow crew members feel you’re a part of the team. That’s very common here at JetBlue,” he said. “I think the amazing part about our leadership team here at JetBlue is that all of us do that because we believe that’s the right thing, not because we believe it’s important to have face time. We’re just a bunch of dudes, all trying to get to the same place. It sure makes leadership easier, and it makes follower-ship feel like the right thing, which is really important.”
That centralized view of the importance of all cogs in the wheel is an important tie throughout JetBlue. Naturally enough, much of the company’s culture is divided into different groups, such as the pilots, the flight attendants, the mechanics, etc. Each job silo has different responsibilities, but all still share the same pathway to success.
“A big chunk of what we do here at JetBlue U is making sure our crew members understand how honest our culture is. We’ve built our culture around five core values—safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion. In everything we do at JetBlue U, we’ve built upon those five values, both in what we teach, how we teach and how we expect our crew members to be out, not only in the operation but in life, which is kind of a challenge from an educator’s perspective,” Barger said. “We actually feel we’re teaching people some life skills, which is kind of a neat thing.”
“I believe at least half of what we deliver here at JetBlue U is the cultural piece. I think that’s a really important piece,” he said. “That really creates a great team atmosphere that I don’t think you get with a decentralized, siloed approach to training and operations. I think that’s a great opportunity.”
Much of JetBlue’s training relies on instructors, teaching in-person classes around the country, from the main campus at the Forest Hills, N.Y., headquarters to locations in Miami, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Long Beach, Calif. Some training is done through e-learning and self-study resources, and JetBlue is also working with New York University to deliver additional education opportunities. More changes will be made as the company evolves further toward e-learning.
Of course, where there’s business investment there’s also measurement. While Barger reviews a lot of data to determine success, key pieces he considers include customer (some would say passenger) feedback, with the theory being that a satisfied customer had satisfying flight experiences.
Barger also works on an annual employee survey to gauge workforce feedback on company policies. Results have been positive on training opportunities.
“I think they feel pretty good about them,” Barger said. “We have done better every year for the last three years on the survey. I think our challenge is the degree to which we’ve leveraged technology and the degree to which we’re actually able to increase the comfort level with that technology. We’re just now catching up with our approach to folding the technology into the training.”
Technology will also, no doubt, play a role in another of Barger’s learning missions, leadership development. JetBlue is currently in the second phase of its leadership education program, designed to give corporate executives the tools to lead and succeed in line with JetBlue’s values. Barger has wisely tapped into an audience of available experts to move that mission ahead.
“The really important part of the leadership program and the really beneficial part is that it’s actually facilitated by our corporate officers, starting with the CEO and our president,” Barger said.
The theme of culture and hands-on involvement is a recurring one for Barger, and an important one for JetBlue.
“All of our instructors are involved in the operation. They all fly, or they turn a wrench working on airplanes, or they go out to the ramp and they load bags or check customers in,” Barger said. “I think A, that’s great from a credibility perspective, and B, it gives us a real good opportunity to interface with our customers. Rather than generating a 100-question ROI questionnaire, we are able to, face-to-face, as individuals or in small groups, ask them, ‘How are we doing? What are you getting that you need more of? What are you not getting?’ We’re able to bring all that back here to our centralized training body and talk about how we action those items. It’s a pretty nice model.”
Of course, not everything is perfect. Barger the pilot sometimes steps aside for Barger the educator.
“I find that having flown F-16s and F-18s in the military, the flying piece is not so challenging technically, but I do love the customer interaction when I’m flying. I love the very non-traditional, ‘Yes, I’m a captain, but I’m just a regular person like you are, welcome aboard and thanks a lot for your faith in JetBlue and let’s go to Fort Lauderdale,’ ” Barger said. “That part I miss, but on the other hand I’m standing in front of a group of students of some discipline almost every day and able to deliver that same message to our crew members, which is very rewarding for me.”