Two fast-growing satellite prime contractors that have hired hundreds of engineers in the past four years plan on hiring 900 more in the next several years and say they see few signs of a shortage of candidates.
Officials from both Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., said that for reasons that may be specific to their companies, the talent pool they depend on for both recent graduates and mid-career engineers appears sufficiently stocked.
The lack of sufficient engineering talent is a recurring theme in both the United States and Europe. The situation is complicated in the United States by the reduced number of H-1B visas for foreign engineers already employed, and the bottlenecks in transferring these visas into permanent-residency permits through green-card approvals.
“There is this assertion that the United States is falling behind,” said Christopher F. Hoeber, senior vice president of program management and systems engineering at Space Systems/Loral. “But we’re not having problems hiring good people.”
Several post-graduate specialist programs have sprung up to give space-industry engineers achance to broaden their skills. The International Space University in Strasbourg, France, has a master’s program that attracts mainly young recent graduates from around the world for a yearlong program.
The Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., has added a master’s degree in systems engineering and a graduate certificate in space systems.
In the Netherlands, the Technical University of Delft in the mid-1990s established SpaceTech to give mid-career engineers a 10-month degree in systems engineering to fill a gap in the private sector and among space agencies.
SpaceTech’s current director, Edward W. Ashford, said that gap – of systems engineers in their 30s and 40s – still exists. “The problem we have is that there are a lot of specialists and not enough generalists – the people who provide the glue that assembles the specialists’ expertise. This is what we think is in short supply,” Ashford said. “The problem exists, but in different degrees, in Europe, the United States and Japan as well.”
Barron Beneski, vice president of corporate communications at Orbital Sciences, said the fast-growing company may be at an advantage compared to some other aerospace firms because of the nature of Orbital’s business lines.
“Our engineers are able to work on multiple satellite programs, with different responsibilities, over just a few years,” Beneski said. “This compares favorably, in the eyes of a young engineer, to working on some subsystem of a large, multiyear satellite program at one of the big primes during that same time period. This also leads to more advancement opportunities in a shorter period of time.”
Orbital’s Dulles satellite integration facility, which recently completed an initial expansion to handle demand for the company’s commercial geostationary satellites, is adding four new buildings and will need to hire 600 more employees in the next four years, Beneski said.
Orbital’s work forceaverages around 40 years in age, substantially younger than the industry average, Beneski said.
Space Systems/Loral is a big-satellite prime contractor but unlike Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, Loral is focused on commercial satellites.
While this was a problem for Loral during the commercial contraction earlier this decade, it adds dynamism in an expanding commercial sector, which is the situation now.
Hoeber said Loral, which shrank to 1,300 employees in the trough of the commercial downturn, has swelled to 2,400. The company added 700 people in 2006 alone, and will be adding another 300 employees in the next 12 months.
Especially unusual in Loral’s recent growth is the fact that around half the people hired were former Loral workers who had been laid off and elected to return.
Hoeber said Loral’s turnover in the past couple of years has been no more than 2-3 percent, including those reaching retirement age.
“We have people in all age groups,” Hoeber said. “In our 40- to 55-year-old age group, I personally know at least a half-dozen who could take my job and I’d be happy with the succession.” Half of Loral’s employees have been with the company at least 10 years, he said.
Hoeber said a company working on attractive programs that conclude in three years or so helps stimulate the work force. “At some of the other large firms you can spend 15 years on a program,” he said. “Here, you get to see the results of what you do after a few years. The satellite is launched.”
Hoeber agreed with Ashford that turning design engineers into systems engineers takes time. But he said Loral has found that giving engineering students hands-on experience yields some students who are ready to take system-level responsibility much sooner.
The University Nanosatellite Program, sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is one example of how to prepare students for system-level work. The program, which features a competition among a dozen universities, provides the winning satellite project with an opportunity build and launch a satellite.