Aerospace Industry Faces Coming Worker Shortage

As the large baby boom generation retires over the next decade, the aerospace and defense industries will be particularly hard hit, and industry officials worry there are not enough qualified young Americans to take the place of these retiring Cold War scientists and engineers.

As of last year, nearly 60 percent of U.S. aerospace workers were 45 or older, according to an Associated Press report. The problem could carry national security implications, and significantly reduce the number of commercial product developments that begin with military technology.   

Although there are two-and-a-half times the number of engineering, math and computer science graduates as there were 40 years ago, there is also more competition for these graduates. Defense companies must now compete with leading technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Verizon.

“It’s about choices,” said Rich Hartnett, director of global staffing at Boeing Co., in an Associated Press interview. “There are so many more options today with a proliferation in the kinds of degrees and career paths that people can follow.”

But despite the industry’s efforts to emphasize the appeal and growing importance of careers involved in national defense, Aerospace Industries Association Chief Executive Marion Blakey is concerned the U.S. could be facing a “wake-up call,” similar to the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. 

Blakey said China’s recent success in shooting down one of its own satellites last year, combined with the upcoming retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet, demonstrate that the U.S. can no longer afford to take its technological and military superiority for granted. 

Blakey formerly served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

In addition to fierce competition for a limited number of technical experts from all corners of corporate America, contractors working on classified government projects are further held back due to restrictions on hiring foreigners or off-shoring work to other countries.

“The ability to attract and retain individuals with technical skills is a lifeblood issue for us,” said Ian Ziskin, corporate vice president and chief human resources and administrative officer for Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. Ziskin told AP that he estimates roughly half of Northrop Grumman’s 122,000 workers will be eligible to retire in the next five to 10 years.  Similar trends exist at Lockheed Martin Corp., of Bethesda, Md., which could lose up to half of its 140,000 workers to retirement over the next decade.

At Boeing, roughly 15 percent of the company’s engineers are 55 or older and currently eligible for retirement.

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 set off panic that the U.S. was falling behind in the space race. It quickly expanded the ranks of aerospace and defense workers as a wave of Americans began careers in the aerospace industry to help the U.S. regain military superiority. However, industry executives now worry there won’t be enough new defense sector workers to replace those employees as they retire.

U.S. universities awarded 196,797 undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, math and computer science in 2005, according to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. That’s a significant increase from the 77,790 degrees awarded in 1966, however there is also a corresponding rise in competition for those graduates.

Defense companies today are competing with companies such as Google Inc., Microsoft and Verizon, along with Wal-Mart and the Navy, for computer science majors, said to Kimberly Ware, associate director for employer relations at Virginia Tech.  And they are competing with General Electric Co., Westinghouse Electric Corp. and top automakers for electrical and mechanical engineering graduates, she said.

Boeing must contend with telecom industry leaders such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. as it grows its satellite business. It even competes with video game developers for 3D graphic designers and software programmers.

At the same time, since young people today have never known a time when the U.S. was not a leader in space exploration or the world’s sole superpower, the defense sector does not exert the same patriotic draw as it once did.
The defense and aerospace industries confront another challenge as well, in that unlike technology companies, defense companies generally have to hire American citizens since they need employees who can obtain security clearance.  This eliminates foreign graduates of American universities and foreign employees in the U.S. on H-1B visas.

“The talent is going to have to be homegrown,” said Blakey.

Defense contractors face similar limitations since they cannot outsource to countries with more technical workers, such as India or China.

In an effort to solve the problem, defense companies are initiating programs to reach out to American students as early as possible. For example, Lockheed Martin is sending employees into elementary schools to tutor students in math and science, as well as recruiting high school students to shadow Lockheed workers on the job.  Lockheed’s engineers provide coaching for robotics teams, conduct rocket propulsion experiments for students and participate in various mentoring programs.

At Northrop Grumman, a program has been established called Weightless Flights of Discovery that allows middle school teachers to experience temporary weightlessness on “zero-gravity” airplane flights that imitate astronaut training for space travel.

Defense contractors are also using other methods to attract new workers, such as flexible schedules, tuition reimbursement programs and plenty of opportunities for advancement. The most important aspect of the recruitment efforts is the defense industry’s appeal of offering “challenging work on programs of national importance,” said Linda Olin-Weiss, director of staffing services at Lockheed Martin.

The implications of falling behind extend beyond national security since military technology often has civilian uses, too.  For instance, GPS satellites and the Internet both originated from military or defense applications.

Industry officials hope the U.S. space program’s plan to return to the moon and implement a manned mission to Mars could lure a new generation of Americans into the aerospace and defense industry, said Blakey.

“The question is: how do you encourage young kids to think of themselves as potential scientists and engineers,” Blakey said. “We hope that a return to the moon and Mars will help inspire them.”

On the Net:

Aerospace Industries Association

Federal Aviation Administration