Home >> May 2009 Edition >> FEATURE: Finding The NexGen Aerospace Workers For The U.S. Satellite Industry
FEATURE: Finding The NexGen Aerospace Workers For The U.S. Satellite Industry

by Marion Blakey, President and CEO
Aerospace Industries Association

The U.S. satellite industry has a great deal to worry about these days ­— lost opportunities due to outdated export control rules, global competition from more and more countries every day, the various technical challenges of providing new services — but there’s another issue out there affecting the entire aerospace industry that demands attention in the satellite sector — a looming workforce crisis.

The U.S. aerospace industry workforce is currently dominated by aging workers — baby boomers who were enthralled with space travel and answered our nation’s call to win the Space Race and put Americans on the moon. Today, nearly 60 percent of aerospace workers were age 45 or older in 2007, with retirement eligibility either imminent or already reached.

There is a growing need to replace these experienced workers, especially the engineer talent pool, with capable new talent to ensure that the United States continues to be the world’s leader in satellite technology and other important aerospace applications. But there are not sufficient numbers of young people studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — the STEM disciplines — that would put them on the path to enter aerospace careers and replace our retiring workers.

There is very strong competition for our nation’s brightest math- and science-oriented students. Aerospace companies are forced to share talent with a variety of high-tech industries that were not even around when baby boomers were selecting their careers. For example, more than half of those who graduate with bachelor’s degrees in engineering go into totally unrelated fields for employment. And the numbers earning advanced degrees in STEM subject areas lag other fields by huge margins.

An estimated 70,000 engineering bachelor’s degrees are awarded in the United States each year, but only 44,000 of those graduates are compatible for aerospace careers when you subtract other engineering disciplines and foreign nationals ineligible for security clearances. About 40 percent of STEM master’s degrees and 50 percent of doctoral degrees go to noncitizens also not eligible for security clearances. Many jobs in the national security and space sections of the industry — a significant portion of overall employment — require the clearances. Even with the economic decline, many aerospace companies are still hiring, especially engineers. So the shortfall is evident.

In addition, our future workforce is not being prepared for STEM careers even before they reach college. Approximately 70 percent of our eighth graders are below “proficient” in mathematics and science and our 15 year olds rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to other nations.

The U.S. Labor Department projects 2.5 million STEM-related jobs will be vacant by 2014, a clear disconnect with the amount of available talent as aging workers start to retire at a faster pace. NASA and the Defense Department predict that the shortage could affect national security and limit commercial product development.

There are a number of aggressive initiatives, both on the company level and industry-wide, to encourage young people to pursue math and science careers and ignite excitement in aerospace. The one AIA is most directly involved in is the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest model rocket competition.

Now in its seventh year, TARC is a collaborative effort between AIA and the National Association of Rocketry, with support from NASA, the Defense Department, the American Association of Physics Teachers and more than 30 AIA member companies.

Created as a one-time event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, TARC received such a positive reaction from students, teachers and parents, AIA made it an annual event. The national, hands-on competition challenges middle and high-school students to demonstrate their math and science skills, work together in a team environment, and design a real aerospace product, which is put through the rigors of testing and evaluation.

The specifics of the challenge change each year so students must solve a new problem and build an original rocket. This year, future engineers from across the country are charged with the task to design and build a model rocket that will climb to 750 feet and stay aloft for 45 seconds.

Teams must also return a payload of one raw egg — lying horizontally to mimic the position of an actual astronaut — to the ground unharmed.

Out of the more than 650 TARC teams that submit qualifying scores, 100 finalist teams are invited to compete for $60,000 in prizes and scholarships at the final “fly-off” to be held on May 16th, at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. At the finals, scores are compiled after two rounds of launches and the winning team earns a trip to the International Paris Air Show in June, among other accolades.

TARC team members consider the competition to be a fun way to apply math and science and also an engaging activity to do with their friends. At the same time, sponsoring companies see the value in exposing these students to hands-on learning that will hopefully propel them to pursue aerospace careers.

Since the first TARC, almost 50,000 students have participated, and there is strong evidence that TARC successfully encourages its participants to pursue careers in the aerospace industry. For instance, each of the eight graduating seniors from the 2008 winning TARC team from Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, is currently enrolled in a college engineering program. Also, in a 2008 survey of TARC participants conducted by AIA, 67 percent of respondents said TARC increased the likelihood they would enter into an aerospace career

David Adelman is just one example of a TARC alumni now working in the aerospace field. Already aware that engineering interested him as a career path, Adelman participated in the inaugural TARC competition and asserts that the hands-on exposure to rockets increased his interest in the aerospace sector. But TARC delivered more than just passion for aerospace. After being introduced to Aerojet, his team’s sponsoring company, the major space and defense contractor followed Adelman through college, offering him internships, a scholarship and even a job upon graduation as a mechanical engineer designing missiles.

“I never would have known about Aerojet if it wasn’t for TARC,” Adelman said.

For more information about this year’s Team America Rocketry Challenge, visit


About the author
Marion C. Blakey is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. AIA represents the nation’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of civil, military, and business aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, space systems, aircraft engines, missiles, materiel and related components, equipment services and information technology. Visit www.aia-aerospace.org for more information.