Space firms focus on potential workforce shortage

By Marco Santana, Orlando Sentinel

PALM BAY — Space industry officials say bolstering the industry’s future workforce to offset an expected wave of retirements must become a priority, or some firms will be left scrambling for workers.

The talent pool has attracted newer companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which creates informal hiring competition with legacy companies long established in Central Florida.

But the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast found last year that 61.9 percent of all engineers in Brevard were 45 or older, meaning a majority could retire in the next decade or two — and slow innovation.

So building the future talent pipeline, a challenge that also applies to other STEM-related fields, remains a major obstacle.

Some companies bet on early exposure to space-related curriculum and partnerships with schools to reach students as early as kindergarten.

The move would demonstrate potential careers to students early and beef up the industry’s sustainability, Lockheed Martin’s Steven Botwinik said.

“Our goal is to inspire that STEM workforce because without it, we all fall,” said Botwinik, the company’s director of advanced programs for its Orlando-based Missiles and Fire Control division. “If it is not there for all of us, none of us will succeed.”

Space firms last year employed 70,500 workers in Florida, according to Aerospace Industries Association numbers. The total represents the fifth-most of any state in the U.S., behind Washington, Texas, Michigan and California.

Some efforts to broaden the workforce target students between kindergarten and sixth grade. But experts say students should be reached directly by third grade to ensure attracting future workers.

One advantage the space industry has is the “wow” factor that can grab kids’ imaginations early, said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida chief of strategic alliances.

“At that age, it’s all space and dinosaurs,” he said. “You have the opportunity there to hook them.” The challenge, he said, is ensuring meaningful action follows.

Matching that early contact with a clear illustration of possible aerospace careers could grow the workforce, said Michael Georgiopoulos, dean of the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“They need to get some of the personal attention they desire,” he said. “They need to know what they will be doing when they graduate.”

Georgiopoulos sat on a panel at a two-day summit at Harris Corporation’s Palm Bay headquarters, where hundreds of educators, lawmakers and industry leaders shared ideas last week about how to bolster the aerospace workforce.

“The issue of attracting talent isn’t work content, work environment or pay,” Harris CEO William Brown said. “The challenge is communicating in a more compelling way the great work we do and marketing it better.”

An aging workforce and a lack of replacements has been called a “challenging situation forecast to worsen in the next decade” by the AIA.

“We need to get more people into the talent pipeline,” said Robin Thurman, AIA’s director of workforce and industrial base development.

But space companies often require highly specialized skills and some positions include high-level security clearance. She said that the wait for those clearances in some cases last up to a year — during which workers might consider alternate options.

The answer could be industry leaders using their political clout to encourage more funding, educators at the summit said.

“We need to expose these children to different fields so they can better make decisions of where they want to take their careers,” said Patricia Breeding, career development coordinator at Orange County Public Schools.

Lockheed Martin, which employs more than 7,000 people in Central Florida, partnered with Orange County Public Schools in 2015 on a $2 million grant that helped the district develop training programs under the Project Lead the Way banner. The company has also created a national education program known as Generation Beyond, which plays on the company’s efforts to reach Mars and brings space-related curriculum to schools nationwide.

Harris, meanwhile, has contributed $22 million to educational institutions conducting STEM-related education.

“They are the ones that will drive this,” Breeding said. “If I have [Harris CEO William] Brown come into a high school and say, ‘I’m a CEO,’ the kids will listen more as opposed to if teachers say it.”

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