By the end of this year, 26 percent of the U.S. aerospace work force
will be eligible to retire, with too few engineers graduating from college to replace them, according to figures compiled by a congressionally mandated task force.
The dearth of students and graduates in math, science and engineering has struck most technology fields in the United States, leaving aerospace companies to compete with major computer software developers and other high-tech industries for 44,000 engineering graduates each year, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. One company alone expects to hire 50,000 engineers over the next five years, the association reports in a summary of 2008 election issues called “Keeping America Strong.”
As a result, aerospace companies are asking retirement-age engineers to stay on the job longer, either full
time or as part-time mentors. At Lockheed Martin, for example, half of its 140,000 employees are engineers and scientists, and 90,000 of those employees will retire over the next 10 years, said Ken Disken, senior vice president of human resources.
“We have 85- and 86-year-old engineers,” Disken said at an April 10 House Aerospace Caucus luncheon here. “At Lockheed Martin, we can retire at 55, and right now we’re averaging 62.2 years. We’re hoping to persuade that group to continue working to 65.”
Delaying retirements among a willing work force
is a short-term fix for a problem expected to grow during the next decade as graduates are lured more by the excitement of the electronics boom than by space exploration, said Keith Volkert, chief executive officer of Satellite Consulting Inc. in Palos Verdes, Calif.
“The problem is getting young kids enthused. They don’t see walking on the Moon as a big deal or going to space as a big deal,” said Volkert, who has been in the business since 1968. “We in the aerospace industry have done a very poor job in passing on the excitement that we feel.”
The United States cannot retain global technological superiority, when U.S. students’ math and science rankings are among the lowest of developed nations, said U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers
, ranking member of the House Science and Technology research and science education subcommittee.
Ehlers, a 74-year-old nuclear physicist and airplane pilot, sponsored legislation in December 2006 that established an Aerospace Revitalization Task Force to promote partnerships, monitor government programs and maximize cooperation among government agencies to fulfill the demand for employees in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields.
“In our country we simply are not producing enough students who are proficient in mathematics and science and we’re not producing enough who go on to engineering,” Ehlers said during the April 10 luncheon.
Those engineers who choose aerospace may face a culture that is not receptive to new ideas or logistical obstacles such as security clearances, industry officials said.
The need for workers with security clearances, which are offered only to U.S. citizens and required for many defense-oriented jobs, also prevents some companies from filling their work force gap with foreign technology workers. A cap of 65,000 workers on the number of H1B visas issued each year – 20,000 for those with advanced degrees – also pits the space industry against other technology firms competing for a relatively small pool of employees.
Efforts to raise the H1B caps are under way in Congress. Bills were introduced March 13 and March 14 respectively by U.S. Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Giffords wants to raise the H1B cap to 130,000 in 2008 and 2009, with further increases in later years if the limit is met, and Smith wants to raise it to 195,000 visas in 2008 and 2009. U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., introduced legislation April 8 that would require employers who benefit from H1B visa workers to participate in education, training or mentorship of U.S. workers. All three bills were referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The difficulty of obtaining a security clearance may also deter even engineering graduates who are U.S. citizens from entering the aerospace work force, the Aerospace Revitalization Task Force wrote in its February 2008 report.
The task force of government representatives, including NASA and the defense, labor, transportation, education, energy and homeland security departments, cited easing the security clearance process as a priority. The task force recommended better explaining the security clearance requirements to potential aerospace workers to help them avoid “disqualifying events” and streamlining the background investigation process to eliminate existing backlogs of one year or longer.
Ehlers’ bill requires t
he task force to meet at least twice a year and produce a report each year for the next five years.
While the task force chips away at the technical obstacles to attracting new engineers, employers are adjusting the work
place culture to make sure it is receptive to new talent and new ideas while retaining the expertise of longtime employees, Disken said.
One way Lockheed is doing this is by focusing on diversity, inclusion and respect by hosting “diversity dialogues,” and creating an Executive Diversity Council chaired by Robert Stevens, company president and chief executive, Disken said, adding that more than half of the company’s new generation of employees are women and minorities. The company also conducts “stay interviews” with new employees after their first year and at several other milestones to find out what would prevent them from seeking employment elsewhere – before they have a job offer in hand, he said.
In addition, companies like Lockheed Martin are investing money in elementary and secondary school programs and partnerships, and have created boot camps within the industry, Disken said.
In May, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics will hold a two-day, invitation
-only forum to discuss work force
Scott Seymour, retired corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, said now that attention is focused on the work force
shortage, there are multiple opportunities to match up mentors and students, such as Teach for America, rocket challenges, plant tours and air shows.
Interest in space among the younger generations will accompany increased opportunities for exploration, research and development,
something Seymour said has been lacking with fewer new projects.
“There were so many programs in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but now there are not so many so there aren’t as many opportunities to learn from mistakes,” he said. “We need to create more excitement and provide daunting challenges
Lon Rains contributed to this article.