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U.S. Satellite Industry Addresses its Aging Workforce Issues

By , | July 6, 2010
      [Satellite News 07-06-10] One of the main issues facing the U.S. space and satellite sector is an aging workforce, and attracting the young people that will build, launch and operate the rockets, satellites and communications networks of the future has proven difficult. The sector has lost the appeal it once had and now faces increased competition in convincing future engineers that space is more relevant than ever.
          Concerns over the aging workforce is the number two issue for members of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), whose members includes U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of aircraft, space systems, equipment, services and information technology, says Daphne Dador, AIA’s manager, workforce. “A lot of our leaders and companies are really focused on developing a qualified workforce for the future. As it stands now, there are certainly challenges for our workforce.” Among them is that 38 percent of the U.S. aerospace workforce is 50 or older, with 20 percent of the workforce forecasted to reach retirement age in the next three to five years. “When it comes to pending retirements and the supply side, getting young people to work in this industry is a concern,” said Dado.
          Before the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in February, Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration at Boeing and chair of the AIA Workforce Steering Committee, said the United States is “falling further behind” in science and engineering education. “These are becoming difficult jobs to fill, not because there is a labor shortage but because there is a skills shortage. Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to replace baby boomers as they retire.
          To improve the situation in the United States, AIA members made investments in STEM education efforts in 2008 with organizations such as 4-H, the Boy Scouts and the Mathcounts Foundation. One of the AIA’s more successful programs is its Team America Rocketry Challenge for middle and high school students. The competition, conducted in coordination with the National Association of Rocketry, pits teams against each other in a competition to design, build and fly a model rocket to a specific altitude and duration. The most recent version, held in May, was the eighth the AIA has conducted and was won by a high school team from Millersville, Pa., which will represent the United States in an International Fly-Off in July at the Farnborough International Air Show in England against teams from the United Kingdom and France.
          “If we in the United States hope to retain our nation’s leadership in science, technology and innovation, we must immediately address the looming STEM skills gap,” says Stephens. The AIA has helped develop an industry-wide STEM coalition that includes contributions from other sectors such as information technology, health and entertainment. While these are the same sectors that the aerospace business is competing with for talent, the aging workforce also is affecting them as well, says Dador. “It’s one issue we all agree on, and the approach and attitude when we work with different industries is that a rising tide raises all boasts. Then we can go out as aerospace and compete for these individuals,” she said.
          The Colorado-based Space Foundation also is heavily involved in trying to replenish the space-related workforce, an effort that has to begin early in life because the younger generations have lost the magic that is associated with satellites, says Iain Probert, the organization’s vice president, education. About 75 percent of the Space Foundation’s efforts are with teachers working with students in grades pre-K through 12.
          NASA also is facing “significant workforce issues,” according to Jim Stofan, acting associate administrator for education at NASA headquarters. “We’re aligning our education programs with our workforce and diversity needs. We are working to find ways to create programs and define a new way to careers at NASA.” Programs are run agency-wide, and there are internships at every NASA center, The agency uses the best of those interns to try to spread the word about careers at NASA. The agency also launched this year a program, Summer of Innovation, for students who would not otherwise not have access to STEM education.
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