Space Workforce:Attracting the Next Generation

By , | July 1, 2010 | Feature, Government

Photos courtesy of Aerospace Industries Associations and G. Vincent Castellano.

One of the main issues facing the space 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,” she says.

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.

United States

Organizations and companies around the globe are working on improving the situation, and with many, it begins by spurring interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the youngest generations and keeping that interest alive as they pursue college and then careers. “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 says. 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.

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. “We believe we have the greatest effect on students through teachers that work with them on a day-to-day basis,” he says. The “crown jewel” in the Space Foundation’s education work is a middle school in Colorado Springs, Colo., near the group’s headquarters. The school was rebranded the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, and the Space Foundation works with the teachers at the school to entwine space and science throughout the curriculum. “Space and science can feature in English class, math class, geography class, geology class. What we are doing with the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy is to link what the students are doing with math.”

NASA also is facing “significant workforce issues,” says 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.


While some in the United States see the country falling behind in education when compared to the rest of the globe, Francesco Emma, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) education office, also says changes need to be made in the way science subjects are taught in school in order to bring young minds to the industry. “The issues related to STEM are quite important in Europe as, in the last decade, there has been a constant decrease in the number of students involved in this domain,” he says. “We recognize that attracting youngsters towards STEM subjects requires a change in the way science is taught at school. Space, with its innate fascination, represents a perfect tool to raise the interest of new generations. Efforts need to be done starting from pupils in primary schools though, because they feed upstream into the whole educational chain.”

As France is one of the Europe’s main centers for space, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, at the forefront of European education issues. “CNES has considered it important to develop specific activities directed at young people. From the outset we adopted a practical experimental approach to scientific research and space technologies,” says Anne Serfass-Denis, head of the Youth and Education Department, CNES. “For younger children, we use space to get them interested in science and technology, which both contributes to their scientific culture and encourages them to consider taking scientific subjects at school by making them aware of space through the activities mentioned above.”

While Europe has a myriad of cultures and languages, coordinating a European-wide policy in this area is not easy. “At the school level for primary and secondary education, we recognize that Europe has different education systems, therefore, rather than going top down to target students, we tend to use a bottom up approach,” says Emma. “We have a network of offices throughout Europe that work at the local level, but where we can share information. The European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) is our main project addressing the community of students and teachers of primary and secondary education. Five offices have been set-up so far and our ambition is to expand them throughout Europe.”

Asia and the Middle East

The Asia-Pacific region is the area of the globe most often cited as setting the pace for math and science education, as emerging space powers such as India use their programs not to attract children to space-related careers but to identify the best of the thousands interested in working for ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation. “We have something like 31 percent of our population who are below 14 years of age. That makes something like 172 million children under the age of 14,” says VS Hegde, ISRO’s scientific secretary. “We have a number of programs to try and attract these children. We hold science clubs. We hold quizzes in schools. We conduct exhibitions. Now, all of these efforts won’t reach all of these young children, so a little a while ago, we launched a tele-education supported by an exclusive education satellite (Edu-Sat). ISRO launched the India Institute of Space Technology (IIST) to educate future engineers, and gaining entry into the institute is very competitive, as graduates are assured of having a job at ISRO. “For this year, we wanted to take some 350 youngsters from this program into our fold. More than 80,000 people wrote exams. That is the type of interest that the young generation has today to join the space program.”

Singapore is seen as one of Asia’s main communications hubs, and the country wants to be at the center of bringing new talent to the industry in Asia. Jonathan Hung, president, Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA), says first impressions count when trying to attract talent. “For school kids, we try and show them new breakthroughs in aerospace/space and sciences in general. It really is constant exposure to new, innovative concepts to keep them fired up. It is also essential to get them interested in science at a young age.”

In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is increasing its focus on bringing through young talent to the space industry. The Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST), is working hard to engage students of all ages and, Ahmed Al Mansoori, director general, EIAST, says there is a good platform for young people to come into the space industry. The DubaiSat program, where students are helping build an actual satellite, is a source of great pride as well as potential inspiration to students at the school level. “We are working with the schools in terms of providing information on what we do as well as projects like DubaiSat. So we make sure we show that as part of the curriculum. We want to encourage youngsters about the importance of these projects and the good they do for the country,” he says.

Throughout the world, space agencies and associations are aiming to think outside of the box to attract young people to the space industry. This battle to engage these minds starts long before college, and it is one of the key battles the industry as a whole industry faces. As we head into a multi-layered digital and communications world, showing young people how satellite technologies underpin areas as diverse as climate change, broadcasting, military operations is a massive, and important, challenge.

Related Stories

Live chat by BoldChat