New talent hard to come by for space companies

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WASHINGTON — The space industry’s struggle to draw young professionals is causing its workforce to lose members faster than they are gained, according to research from Deloitte Consulting.

“We’ve done a bunch of studies internally looking at the median age across the R&D portfolios for the U.S. government space programs as well as the commercial space market, and the average age of a worker is only getting older,” Jeff Matthews, a space industry veteran who works at Deloitte as a consultant, said March 12 at the Satellite 2018 conference here. “With attrition and other causes that drag people out of the industry, we are not backfilling it fast enough to really fill the voids that we are creating.”

Workforce woes are becoming a “huge pain point,” made worse by increased competition from tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google, Matthews said.

Even with the success of companies like SpaceX, Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab, all of which generate significant interest among young professionals, the space industry continues to have difficulty bringing in new talent. A workforce study from Space & Satellite Professionals International in 2016 found that 67 percent of employees leave their place of employment in less than five years.

“We are competing for these engineers as they come out of school, and we have to make space exciting. It is exciting — we all know it’s exciting — but we are not telling that story enough to attract the talent,” said Kay Sears, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ vice president of strategy and business development.

Sears added that the space industry still hasn’t “cracked the women engineering issue,” and is losing female engineering talent at the collegiate level because of inclusivity challenges in a predominantly male field.

“We are only graduating 18 percent female engineers even though they express a very keen interest in math and science earlier in their education, but we are losing them somewhere along the way,” she said.

For the satellite industry, the types of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, professionals needed is even broader than the overall space industry. Nathan Kundtz, founder and CEO of Kymeta, said his satellite antenna company has needs more akin to a software company.

“From a workforce maintenance standpoint we have the same challenges that every major software company does,” he said. “Diversity is a huge challenge.”

“We haven’t had trouble recruiting and getting interest from folks, but the cost of software engineers has continued to rise and so that’s one of the challenges on a global basis,” he added.

Matthews said as the age gap widens, people coming into the industry are bringing different skill sets, making it more difficult to maintain legacy systems that have been in place for years or decades.