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The role of natural abilities, intrinsic characteristics, and extrinsic conditions in air traffic controllers’ vocational development

Laura Pylväs (School of Education, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland)
Petri Nokelainen (School of Education, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland)
Hilkka Roisko (School of Education, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland)

Journal of Workplace Learning

ISSN: 1366-5626

Article publication date: 13 April 2015




The purpose of this paper is to apply the Developmental Model of Vocational Excellence (DMVE) in the domain of air traffic control and to describe the characteristics and predictors related to air traffic controllers’ (ATCO) vocational expertise and excellence. Based on DMVE, the study analyses the role of natural abilities (gifts), intrinsic characteristics (self-regulatory abilities) and extrinsic conditions (domain and non-domain specific factors) in ATCOs’ vocational development.


The target population of the multiple case study consisted of ATCOs in Finland (N = 300), of which 28 were interviewed. The interviewees represented four different airports. Initially, three key personnel interviews were conducted to validate the structured theme interview instrument that was subsequently used for the 28 interviews. The data set also included the ATCOs’ aptitude test scores and training records. Employee assessments were used to determine their on-the-job performance level (expertise vs excellence). The research questions were examined using theoretical concept analysis. The qualitative data analysis was conducted with content analysis and Bayesian classification modelling.


The findings indicate that cognitive skills, self-reflection, volition and goal-orientation are considered to be ATCOs’ most important vocational characteristics in addition to interpersonal, intrapersonal and spatial skills. The main differences between the ATCOs representing vocational expertise and those representing vocational excellence were related to self-regulation; motivation and volition in particular proved to be somewhat stronger in the latter group.

Research limitations/implications

It was acknowledged that there are limitations in the present study. First, the four airports were not selected randomly. Although they represent different types of airports (and ATCO job profiles) in Finland quite well, future studies should include comparative aspect to airports in other countries. Second, the number of participants (N = 28) in the study was quite small, limiting generalization of the results to the target population (N = 300). Future research on this domain should be extended to include also quantitative measurements, allowing more generalizable results. Third, although the analysis for the research question 3 was based on a technique that is not sensitive to missing values (BCM), missing data in ATCOs’ aptitude test scores, training records and employee assessments added uncertainty to the results.

Practical implications

ATCOs’ highly controlled and pre-defined work presents a challenge to work motivation, which is seen as one of the determining factors in safety in air traffic controlling (ATC). In the future, more emphasis should be placed on the prerequisites of professional development such as leadership (human resource management, feedback, employees’ opportunity to influence), working environment (physical and social environment), educational possibilities and career progression, as well as professional benefits (salary and working hours).


Although ATC is a fairly studied topic since 1970s, most studies related to ATCOs have concentrated on training, learning on the job, cognitive capacity and processing and stress tolerance. This study extends the emerging research in the field on self-regulation by adopting DMVE to investigate its role, alongside natural abilities and domain and non-domain specific factors, to vocational talent development in different skill acquisition stages.



The study was supported by a research grant from the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation.


Pylväs, L., Nokelainen, P. and Roisko, H. (2015), "The role of natural abilities, intrinsic characteristics, and extrinsic conditions in air traffic controllers’ vocational development", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 241-263.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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