Photo above by Paul Textor.
Based on the seminar “Where Did All the Tandem Instructors Go? A Tandem Instructor Retention Project by Tandem Examiner Angie Aragon of USPACourses.com.
When you think of a tandem instructor who has made a difference on your drop zone, you may think of one who has been around the DZ forever. Well, that individual is a rarity. USPA data from 2019-2022 shows that 25% of tandem instructors do not renew their ratings after the first year. And by the fourth year, 60% of those instructors have left their drogue-throwing days behind. The average tandem rating has a life cycle of three years, and the attrition rate is the same for men and women.
The tandem operation is the life blood of most drop zones, and its tandem instructors are its beating pulse. So, why do new tandem instructors stop doing this thing that they were so eager to learn and invested so much time and energy in? To find information that could help increase the tandem instructor pool, I developed a two-part survey to help figure it out. The survey elicited about 400 responses; 150 were from former instructors and 250 were from within the active-instructor pool of around 4,000 (approximately 6.25% of the active-instructor population). The survey had approximately a 7% margin of error.
The first question focused on the newbies, asking, “What is the most challenging part during the early days as an instructor?” The top four responses were:
1| Not having enough mentorship.
2| Being expected to jump with students who were of challenging body types (e.g., tall, elderly, pear shaped) before having enough experience.
3| Being expected to jump in weather conditions that were above their skill level.
4| Being expected to make more jumps than they were ready to make.
Coming in at fifth, some responders also mentioned that aspects of the jump itself, such as exits and landings, were challenging.
So, according to the survey, mentorship is of foremost importance to new instructors. With the sink-or-swim mentality alive and well in the industry, is it any surprise that a quarter of new tandem instructors don’t make it to year two?
They survey also asked, “How many tandem jumps did it take for you to gain confidence and establish good flow? In other words, how long was your learning curve?” You may be surprised by the answers: 33% said 0-50 (some of us are a little egotistical), 32% said 50-100, and 35% said it took 100-150. So, for more than two-thirds of instructors, professional development takes between 50-150 jumps, which is well above the current 25-jump probationary period.
Thinking about this compared to the accepted progression in other areas of the sport, the jump numbers don’t match up. It is taboo to downsize canopies rapidly or upsize wingsuits rapidly, regardless of how badass the jumper thinks they are. So why are new tandem instructors expected jump with students who have large and more complex body types, jump in challenging wind conditions or turn loads quickly? And all without mentorship? This is a problem.
Solving these issues is a two-way street: Drop zones need to be involved in developing a sensible progression for new instructors, and new instructors should seek out a place that will be supportive of them. Here are some recommendations:
Wind Conditions: Increase wind limits at a pace that allows proper development of canopy skills. Start with a 15-mph limit and increase it slowly as the tandem instructor consistently achieves soft, on-target landings at the current limit.
Flow: Limit new instructors to five jumps a day and provide at least 40 minutes between loads. Number of jumps can increase and time between loads can decrease as the instructor develops good timing and pace.
Mentorship: Assign a chief instructor. If a tandem instructor is having difficulties during jumps, provide outside video that the chief instructor can then debrief with the new instructor and give tips on how to improve.
Student: Assign students of average size and weight to new instructors. Introduce students of larger or more challenging body types in an incremental fashion as the instructor demonstrates consistently stable exits, stability and heading control in droguefall and soft, on-target landings.
Why are tandem instructors strapping themselves to whuffos and performing a somewhat complicated and inherently dangerous thing? To find out, the survey asked, “What is your favorite part about being a tandem instructor?” The top answers, in order, were:
1| I love taking people on tandem jumps! I love it all.
2| Getting paid to skydive. I’m living the dream.
3| I enjoy being on the DZ and around like-minded people.
4| I like having the freedom of being able to work and travel.
Overwhelmingly, the instructors said that they perform tandems because they love taking people on tandem jumps! So, if they are so intrinsically motivated, then why do they quit?
This brings us to the next survey question, which provided a checklist of responses to “I love to do tandems, but … ” Possible responses were: It is too physically demanding; the money is inconsistent; it lacks growth and opportunity; I am bored/mentally burned out; rotation and scheduling are challenging; other (medical, family, distance to DZ, other obligations).
Making the Juice Worth the Squeeze
Most people assume that money is the most important factor when it comes to making the job of tandem instructor appealing. This, as it turns out, is not the case. Money actually came in third when tandem instructors responded to the question, “What are the most important factors in making a drop zone worth working for?” In order, the responses were:
1| Work conditions are the most important thing, this includes the quality of equipment, the aircraft and experience level of co-workers.
2| Clear communication! Management that is considerate, transparent and supportive.
3| It’s all about the Benjamins … a fair rate, generous tip policy, an overweight fee and other financial incentives.
4| Other: Flexible scheduling, recognition and room for growth.
Create a Loyal Team
So, how do drop zones increase the life cycle of a new tandem instructor’s rating beyond its current average of three years? Based on the survey results, new tandem instructors are eager to introduce their students to the sky! Providing them with mentorship, being extra supportive for the first 150 jumps, investing in their development and being considerate and transparent will build a loyal team.
Maintain a Loyal Team
Step one in maintaining a loyal team is to realize that experienced tandem instructors bring a lot to the table and are a special breed of human. Provide them with good working conditions; be considerate, transparent and supportive; provide them with financial incentives; allow flexible scheduling and give them recognition and room for growth.
Though this survey only scratches the surface of what makes tandem instructors tick, it’s a great start at understanding the issues that affect instructor retention and is sparking much-needed conversation. Future studies could include topics such as dealing with burnout, life cycles of multi-rated vs. single-rated instructors and the long-term effects of hand-mounted camera use.
It is probable that shortages of instructors will continue through the post-COVID years. Drop zones that do not have a natural pipeline of new jumpers or that do not have a path for jumpers to grow into the instructor role will struggle the most.
Angie Aragon | D-30898; Tandem, AFF and Coach Examiner
Founder of USPACourses.com, a traveling ratings school