One of the main issues facing the space sector is an aging work force, 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.
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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, Workforceworkforce. “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 the challenges 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.
Listen to more questions from Jason Bates' interview with Daphne Dador, Manager, Workforce, Aerospace Industry Association.
Before the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in February, Rick Stephens, senior vice president of Human human Resources resources and Administration 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,” Stephens said. “Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to replace baby boomers as they retire.
Robert Bell, president of the World Teleport Association, is not as pessimistic about the current workforce, but “that’s not to say there are no issues. It’s more nuanced. In government-driven aerospace, I believe most of the concern is centered around NASA and the Department of Defense and their contractors who know their talent is getting old.” The real concern is that “young people are not really getting connected to the legacy of this business. The thing that makes the veterans so remarkable is they know they changed the world. I’m not sure that is getting passed down and lighting the flame in the younger people. To them, this is more of job and less of a calling.”
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 at they grow and 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.
One of the efforts that the AIA has helped developed is 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. We want to tell them aerospace is the best place, but if there is not enough individuals altogether, then it’s not as much of an impact as it could be when all industries are working together,” she says. All of the members of the AIA have different areas they focus on and programs they promote individually. AIA members made investments STEM education efforts in 2008 with organizations such as 4H, the Boy Scouts and the Mathcounts Foundation, says Dador. The AIA collects data on the various efforts to see where the investments are having the most impact. “When we did our survey, the companies on average invest $8 million to $12 million on these programs. Some of these companies are basically providing money to local science clubs, and it’s great to reach out to the community, but if there is all this money and there hasn’t been too much of an impact, we might want to reconsider how to better invest,” she says.
One of the AIA’s more successful programs is its own Team America Rocketry Challenge for middle and high school students. The competition, conducted in coordination with the National Association of Rocketry, pits teams of students against each other in an effort to design, build and fly a model rocket that reaches a specific altitude and duration determined by a set of rules developed each year. For the 2010 event, student teams were challenged launch a model rocket to an altitude of 825 feet with a flight time of 40-45 seconds as well as return a raw egg payload to the ground unbroken without a parachute. The contest is designed to encourage students to study math and science and pursue careers in aerospace. The most recent version, held in May, pitted 100 qualifying teams that gathered in an area outside of Washington, D.C., was the eighth the AIA conducted and was won by a team from Penn Manor High School in Millersville, Penn., which will represent the United States in an International Fly-Off in July at the Farnborough International Air Show in England. The trip to compete against teams from the United Kingdom and France is sponsored by Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin provided $5,000 scholarships to each of the top three teams in the U.S. competition, and the top 20 teams also will receive an invitation from NASA to participate in its Student Launch Initiative, an advanced rocketry program.
NASA also is facing “significant workforce issues” and is heavily involved in education efforts, says Jim Stofan, acting associate administrator for Education education at NASA headquarters. “We have a very high percentage of folks that are eligible to retire. If you look at where the bubble curve is, we have a much more seasoned level of experience among the 18,000 employees. This is one of our strategic issues, and 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,” he says. NASA offers programs that run agency wide as well as programs that are specific to centers throughout the United States. There are internships at every NASA center, and the agency uses the best of those interns to return to campuses and try to spread the word about careers at NASA.
Beginning this summer, the agency launched a new program, Summer of Innovation, a multi-week, intensive education opportunity for students who would not otherwise not have access to STEM education. The agency is partnering with four states, and NASA will track these students to track the results of the programs.Theprograms. The biggest challenge is how to measure the impact of the efforts, says Stofan. NASA tracks the number of students that participate in the various programs and the impact of NASA’s work. In 2009, 51 percent of students that participated in NASA fellowships or internship are employed in research related to NASA content and 20 percent have gone into STEM-related field but maybe not related to NASA, he says.
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 satellite work because the technology has become ubiquitous, says Iain Probert, the organization’s viced president, education. “The issue still remains about bringing all of humanity up to speed on what space brings to their daily life. … Part of the Space Foundation’s mission is public awareness of space and the benefits brings to humanity. When we look at education outreach, predominantly ours is pre-K through 12th grade students and teachers. I would say about 75 percent of our pre-K through 12th grade outreach is through educators. We believe we have the greatest effect on students through teachers that work with them on a day-to-day basis,” he says.
Listen to more questions from Jason Bates' interview with Iain Probert, Vice President, Education, The Space Foundation.
One program that will be conducted for the fourth consecutive summer will see the Space Foundation conduct a course in Charles County, Md., schools that will provided classes for up to 240 teachers over a three-week period. The graduate-level courses will include rocketry, astronomy, Earth systems science, space technologies in the classroom, biological and physical research, and lunar/Mars-based construction. Another effort in the western suburbs of Chicago will involve astronomy courses for 25 sixth-to-eighth grade students and 25 middle school teachers. “Science has really been ramped up in state testing, and astronomy will be big feature in the middle school curriculum. Students and teachers will do their work, and each day, teachers and students will get together to talk about what is exciting about what they just learned and how it can be incorporated into the classroom. In turn, teachers ask the students what they can do.”
The “crown jewel” in the Space Foundation’s education work is a middle school in Colorado Springs, Colo., near the group’s headquarters. The failing 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.” The students spent time this spring laying out a half-sized scale model of the International Space Station on the school’s football field, using math to work out the dimensions. “It’s impressive to see these young people who are not used to the concept of teamwork. It gets them really excited.”