August 20, 2010

Aerospace Work Force Facing Retirement

U.S. aerospace companies are encouraging students to pursue technical careers to help replace an expected flood of worker retirements.

Companies are sponsoring student robotics competitions, forming partnerships with technical schools and calling for higher national education standards in an attempt to bring new urgency to an emerging U.S. shortage of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"If we can work on retention and we can work on the excitement of STEM or engineering, then we can change the equation," William Swanson, chief executive of Raytheon Co, said in an interview with Reuters.

Aviation Week magazine performed a 2010 study that found 19 percent of employees are now at retirement age. The publication said that figure will jump to over 30 percent in 2012 and nearly 40 percent by 2014.

According to a 2008 report from the Aerospace Industries Association trade group, only about 70,000 bachelor's degrees in engineering are awarded in the U.S.

The problem is a growing one for aerospace and defense companies because many engineering jobs in the field are only open to U.S. citizens due to security requirements.

"I have a lot of positions, but a lot of times I may not be able to fill them because I don't have U.S. citizens," Lisa Kollar, executive director of career services at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the top U.S. schools for aerospace recruitment, told Reuters.

Swanson said the shortfall in engineering-trained talent could pose a national security danger because it limits the ability of the U.S. to be innovative.

"I have nothing against the service industry," Swanson said. "I just don't see our country being a great country if we're flipping hamburgers and selling coffee."

Raytheon is targeting students at the middle-school age because that is when research shows children lose interest in science and math.  The company created MathMovesU, a program that includes an interactive website, contests, live events, scholarships and tutoring to help send the message that math and science are cool and leads to an interesting career.

Aerospace companies are calling for better training and pay for math and science teachers.

"The gestation period for fixing this may be three, four, five, 10 years out before you start to see the curve change," Swanson said.

Clay Jones, the CEO of avionics maker Rockwell Collins Inc. told Reuters that there is not enough U.S. technical talent that meets the need.  Aerospace companies may eventually have no choice but to go after more workers in place that produce STEM-trained personnel, such as India and China.

According to the Aerospace Industries Association report, five percent of U.S. bachelor's degrees are in engineering, compared with 20 percent in Asia.

"It's not so much that the source of supply is not there," Jones told Reuters. "It's that the source of supply in the United States may not be there."


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