Op-ed | Talent gap jeopardizes space business, national security

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The space race is back, inspiring innovators, investors and consumers alike, at a scale and scope unseen since the moon landing. But, do we have the talent to win?

Since the dawn of the Space Age, governments have led the way in space. This time around; however, the private sector is revolutionizing the rocket launching and satellite scattering activity we hear about every day, while visions of planet roving, space station building, asteroid mining and dreams of far-flung colonies are helping to fire the public imagination.

This new “space race” represents the potential for immense economic opportunity and innovation, as well as an explorer’s fevered dream. Beyond this; however, humanity’s future will depend on what we are able to achieve.

As various countries build up their space programs and more and more satellites are launched into space, it has become an increasingly, “contested and congested” theater. For example, our rivals have already dialed in the lasers that could potentially render military satellites blind in minutes.

As the “Art of War” tells us, whoever holds the high ground controls their destiny. It is impossible to maintain the national security safeguards that keep the United States safe if we cede the space between Earth and the moon to nation-state adversaries or to private entities operating in opposition to our national interests.

Fortunately, Americans have proved time and time again that they have the intelligence, fortitude and determination to succeed. However, this depends upon having the right people with the right qualifications at the right time – and it is increasingly clear that we do not. A growing talent gap is one of the biggest economic, cultural, and security risk this nation faces in the critical next two decades.

What happened?

At present, highly skilled graduates are clamoring for the coolest jobs in emerging space companies with world changing visions. But, just as with computing and the internet, the industry needs a workforce formidable enough to fuel potentially hundreds of new space companies and thousands of new jobs.

Labor is scarce. The right labor, even more so.

Unemployment is so low and the skills gap so vast that we’re already looking at widespread overemployment among the general population. Los Angeles, for example, is facing at a 42-percent shortage of “midskilled” workers over the next five years.

There are currently 6.3 million U.S. job openings. By 2020, there will be up to 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs, according to Manpower. According to Addeco, 92 percent of business leaders think American workers aren’t as skilled as they need to be.

We’re making this challenge hard on ourselves. Space companies and high-tech firms are fighting for the same workforce skilled in software, hardware, data science, engineering, artificial intelligence and manufacturing. Terrestrial high-tech (computing, networks, internet, smartphones, etc.) is where the excitement, and more critically the money, has been, siphoning off the best and the brightest.

The Department of Defense and its major contractors not only need to compete against high-tech, but also quicker-moving, dynamic emerging space companies. And at the same time, experienced engineers are retiring. Traditional aerospace companies have already been running at a 25-percent deficit in engineering jobs due to aggressive cost-cutting. Additionally, NASA employment has been on a downward slope since 1991. DoD and NASA need fresh talent, too. Of equal concern, those entering the field largely represent the same demographics of the past 30 years. Increased diversity in the aerospace and defense (A&D) workforce is critical to enabling both innovation and global competitiveness.

So basically, we have emerging space, established space and high-tech fighting for the same workforce. It’s inefficient at best. Through the lens of our national aspirations, including security, it’s self-defeating.

What’s the answer?

From a strategic point of view, we could take six major steps to staff up to help win this new space race.

1. Tweak DoD practices.

Mission and a sense of purpose are key drivers of people joining the government, military and the defense industry. This mission driven culture gets people in, but it can only keep them for so long. If the mission increasingly demands dominion in space, will the government do what it takes to support the mission? If the answer is yes, then we should consider a couple of things:

First, we should seek out a wider-range of individuals to support the mission. Despite the best intentions of senior leaders, great candidates with cutting-edge experience from the private sector face significant barriers to interviews or are receiving offers with little negotiability (e.g., at a significantly lower level of responsibility), due to overly bureaucratic human capital processes and screening based largely on years of experience rather than experience in years. Improving these processes can make it easier for the DOD to attract the best and the brightest workforce so important to our national security and defense. Expediting the application, hiring and security clearance timelines, which can stretch to more than two years from application, is also critical.

Second, the national security and space enterprise should incentive and enable “boomerangs” – those who leave the military or government service for the private sector and who later wish to return. The experience individuals gained outside of DoD is extremely valuable and could be beneficial to the mission, but the lengthy application and, many times, significant step backward in responsibility dissuades these returns. To address this, the DoD could explore introducing external assignments for military and government civilians, similar to Joint-Duty Assignments, to go out to the private sector for six months to two years, to learn new best practices and bring them back to DoD. This can keep DoD at the forefront of developments in the space enterprise, while also providing extraordinarily valuable career development opportunities. Pairing external assignments with a tailored career development roadmap, will prepare employees with a better understanding of how their trajectory is supported and how external assignments can propel their careers.

In sum, if DoD does not attract, retain and develop its people, it could fall further behind in the technical and management aspects of the space industry, and it cannot afford to do so when the stakes are so high.

2. Reorient industry.

Myriad terrestrial companies offer products and services that could easily apply to space, but many of these companies have yet to contemplate the new opportunity. It’s time to start pivoting to space. It can be good for business, good for a company’s brand, and good for the nation.

As an example, industrial companies making mining equipment may have application off the Earth. Think about how this could be applied on the moon. What about the manufacturing of specialized tractors? 3D printers? Buildings? Medical equipment? Networks? Power? All of that is needed in space. These types of organizations may be suited to be the emerging space workforce that we need and can start educating themselves about developing opportunities now. As soon as industry pivots, the labor market will follow.

3. Improve government understanding and cooperation.

Government should provide the right regulatory and policy environment to allow business to broaden involvement. For this to occur, the space industry and related industries with interest in space must continue to engage with government in helping them understand that the space sector is not a monolith.

The government should work with private industry across the space sector to build a sustainable framework and industry model that helps drive innovation and reduce barriers to attracting the best talent. Broader understanding may require development of a common “space industry language” as well as identification of common issues. A first step could be to convene stakeholders from across federal agencies, including civil (NASA, NOAA), defense (USAF), and intelligence (NRO, NGA) with private industry and regional spaceports to agree to a common language and understanding of the space enterprise. This provides the basis for discussions to segment the market based on capabilities and respective business models. Stakeholders can define the differences between these segments, their varying needs, and the right levels and types of policy and regulatory levers for each. For example, remote sensing companies need different things to survive and thrive than launch services or resource exploitation companies. Doing this would fuel job growth and expand private-public sector cooperation across the space enterprise.

4. Educate for space.

Let’s embed space into higher-ed curriculum. This doesn’t mean just graduating more aerospace engineering majors, but looking for ways the rest of a university program applies to our emerging space mission. Whether a program is business, pre-med, architecture or philosophy, there’s an immediate application to space. Fashion design students can help design better space suits. Nutritionists can look at feeding astronauts who will be in zero-g for years. Law students can look at space governance. Educating for space is the right thing to do strategically – and it is bound to help enrollments.

As pointed out earlier, the U.S. is also suffering a training and education gap in general skills. Trade schools and community colleges are trying to fill the gap – but manufacturing talent such as welding, pipefitting, sheet metal work and newer trades such as composite manufacturing are all needed both in the U.S. and in space. Embedding space as a means to attract people to well-paying trades can only contribute to reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing at home and in space. Why wait for the talent gap to widen?

5. Enhance public engagement and increase the nation’s stake in the space race — again.

China’s aggressive and increasingly sophisticated offensive space capabilities are a threat to U.S. interests. Growing instability in the U.S.-Russian relationship has not put cooperation in human spaceflight at risk to date; however, other Russian capabilities are of great concern. American leadership in space cannot be taken for granted; it should be invested in and advanced. Further, increasing the tempo and range of our activities in space stands to benefit our citizens both economically and culturally. Going a step further – what better way to identify as the global leader in space than to build a culture of space inclusion among citizens? By continuing to get the public involved in crowdsourcing ideas of the future—something that NASA is already doing with citizen scientists to advance their mission—the U.S. could unleash a nation of doers and innovators that when coupled with the competitive zeal of private enterprise could leapfrog China and Russia.

6. Think differently about recruiting without relying on old ways of attracting talent.

More than anything, we need to continue to push our thinking for creative ways to attract talent. Why not use “gamification” or space-themed “hack-a-thons” in sourcing and recruitment? Human Resource departments can use a series of online assessments (games) for candidate placement and leverage “leaderboards” to encourage competition with others. Enabling a more robust, open-ended “inside the culture” conversation between applicants and employers will only lead to higher engagement and a more talented workforce.

Yes, we can

A coming “talent gap” in technical skills and education has been recognized for decades, with stark forecasts for the impact to U.S. economic opportunity and global competitiveness. That forecast is now upon us. In 2016, there were over 27,000 open job requisitions in aerospace and defense. If we do not act, those numbers will only increase.

This is a fight for our future. If we cede space to our rivals, it will put our nation in a challenging position to win it back.

If we can come together and focus on these seven things, and if we can do it well, then the future is in our hands. And others will follow.

We just need the talent.


Bill Beyer is a principal in the defense and national security practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Mary Lynne Dittmar is the president and CO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.