Equipping Tomorrow's Space Technology Workforce

Equipping Tomorrow's Space Technology Workforce

A recent report by the Aerospace Industries Association, entitled “The Defining Workforce Challenge in U.S. Aerospace & Defense”, identified critical challenges in maintaining the highly skilled and robust defense and aerospace workforce essential to our nation’s security and economic prosperity. Root causes for the shortage include our aging baby boomer-dominated workforce, a serious shortage of STEMready college graduates, competition from other technologydriven sectors, and the changing technology needs of our industry.

The aging workforce problem has reached critical mass. According to the AIA report, over 40 percent of the skilled trades people in the aerospace industry have retired within the past few years. Fortunately, the impact of this loss has been relatively tempered by the shift to continued part-time work in “retirement”. But, the magnitude of the loss requires a steady talent stream of new workers with the right skills, aptitude, experience, and interest to fill the jobs vacated by senior-level engineers and skilled technicians.

Despite numerous programs, initiatives, and campaigns geared toward attracting more students to careers in STEM, a significant academic and skills gap still remains. And for this dwindling crop of STEM graduates, the space sector sees increased competition from other technology-driven sectors. As cited in the 2015 Aviation Week Workforce Study, competition for specific engineering skills is broadening and becoming more intense as automotive, high tech, and oil and gas industry needs expand.

We Must Help Those Entering the Workforce Transition from the Relative Safety of the Academic Environment to the Demands of the Industry Workplace

As the space industry pursues innovations to increase productivity and decrease time to market, new skill sets are emerging. Model-Based Engineering allows engineers to create digital twins of a proposed system and use these models to efficiently evaluate alternative designs and operational concepts. Beyond the new digital skills required, the interdisciplinary nature of these models demand expanded interpersonal skills for working with diverse sets of stakeholders – not a traditional strength for engineers. Advances in artificial intelligence and related fields, such as machine learning, image recognition, natural language processing, expert systems, cyber security, and robotics, have enabled practical incorporation of these technologies into today’s systems. Engineers and technicians currently in today’s workforce often have little exposure to the design principles and implementation practices associated with these technologies.

What actions can we, as today’s space industry leaders, personally take to help equip tomorrow’s workforce? First, we must inspire elementary, high school, and college students to pursue STEM-related careers. We can volunteer to speak to classes and serve as judges in science competitions, sharing our passion for the work and explaining tomorrow’s abundant, space-related career opportunities.

Second, we must mentor not only those entering the workforce, but those in the pipeline. Fewer than 40 percent of students who declare a STEM major in college complete a STEM degree. We must help young professionals see the potential benefits awaiting those who stay with their studies. We must help those entering the workforce transition from the relative safety of the academic environment to the demands of the industry workplace. Simultaneously, we must foster new work environments that appeal to the Millennials’ career needs and the increasing numbers of minorities entering STEM – independence, flex time, and innovation in technology, processes, and business. Finally, we must embrace the concept of life-long learning. We must encourage today’s mid-career workers to take advantage of continuing education programs – if only as a stop-gap to broader, long-term efforts to replenish the workforce. We must stop treating educational budgets as discretionary spending and encourage our staff to stay relevant in today’s knowledge-based economy.

Equipping tomorrow’s space technology workforce will require our brightest minds and most concentrated efforts. But isn’t it our mission to reach for the stars? 

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