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Focus on the Workforce: Solving the Skills Gap Equation


 Susan Lavrakas

By Susan Lavrakas
Director Workforce
Aerospace Industries Association
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Preparing for and adjusting to fundamental changes in the workforce have been the focus of much discussion and joint effort by aerospace and defense firms for several years. The "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report raised alarm among leaders of our industry, which was facing unprecedented workforce shifts as baby boomers became eligible for retirement. Concerns among chief executive officers at our largest member companies about having a strong American workforce for our industry, for national security and for economic competitiveness through the 21st century led them to create a special working group at the Aerospace Industries Association.

Our member companies had for decades supported innumerable educational programs and extra-curricular activities with hundreds of millions of dollars, collectively, per year. With U.S. student interest and performance in math and science falling behind more than twenty other countries, it was clear these contributions were not having the desired impact. We needed to find out what should be done differently. About a dozen representatives from major aerospace corporations first met in April 2006. The group was tasked with identifying the best practices in education for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that some companies were already supporting and others might get behind; to reach out to and collaborate with others having a stake in STEM workforce preparation; and to report back to the CEOs about what our industry could do to effectuate real change.AvWeek

Much has changed in the intervening six years, but the problems are nowhere near solved. Student performance and interest in STEM subjects remain below the levels needed to sustain a robust, innovative 21st Century economy. However, the environment in which we operate and address these issues has altered significantly. Foremost, the economic downturn in 2008 and ensuing recession have both mitigated and exacerbated workforce challenges in the aerospace and defense industry. The tsunami of retirements expected has not yet manifested, because baby boomers have prolonged their working years due to the reduced value of their savings and assets. This has allowed companies to prepare for and manage workforce transitions in a more deliberate and less disruptive fashion than anticipated.

Doing a better job of identifying and characterizing both immediate and future workforce needs has been a main project of the AIA Workforce Steering Committee formed in 2009. These CEO-appointed senior executives are intimately involved in the design and continuous refinement of the Annual Aerospace and Defense Workforce Study conducted by Aviation Week & Space Technology in partnership with AIA, NDIA, AIAA and NASA.


Understanding the Challenge

AvWeek started a yearly workforce study in 1997, and it is now the one and only official workforce survey and analysis of the aerospace and defense industries. Overseen by an Advisory Committee of CEOs, the effort now incorporates not only data on jobs and career opportunities in these industries but also the demographics of the workforce, key technology and other trends, comparison with other sectors, perceptions that young professionals and university engineering students have of aerospace and defense, and more. AvWeek provides a complete report to survey participants and publishes a summary of the findings in late August.

According to the 2011 study, while the defense and space workforce is shrinking through layoffs and induced retirements, the commercial aviation side of the industry is ramping up for record production levels. Based on both government and private investment, future growing business is expected in unmanned aerial vehicles, cyber security, biotechnology, biofuels, and transportation to the International Space Station.

At present the most critical skills sought in hiring by our companies are: systems engineering, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, program management, software development, structures and supply chain. The Workforce Steering Committee, along with other technical committees at AIA, is investigating what the aerospace and defense industrial base will need to move forward; and what that means in terms of numbers of people, educational degrees and professional certificates, skills and capabilities that will be required to operate successfully.


Programs and Partnerships

Exciting young people to be interested and pursue studies in math, science, engineering and technology is a central part of our plan to nurture the future workforce. AIA’s signature STEM program is the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest model rocket contest, now celebrating its 10th season. More than 55,000 students from across the country have participated in the competition to date. Begun in 2003 as a fun way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight, TARC has become our model workforce development program. A past participant survey conducted in 2010 shows its effectiveness. Seven in ten (71%) surveyed say they plan to pursue a career directly related to STEM.

Another key component of our workforce strategy, launched in March 2010, is the Business and Industry STEM Education Coalition. BISEC is a dynamic affiliation of dozens of industry associations that represent employers of STEM professionals and other partner organizations,including federal departments and agencies and philanthropic groups, who have pledged to work together to advance STEM. One of BISEC’s goals is to double the number of STEM graduates in 10 years. Another is to achieve meaningful industry engagement in all 50 states.

AIA and a partner organization, the National Defense Industrial Association, have been conducting joint quarterly workforce meetings around the country since 2007. We began this practice to inform ourselves about what aerospace and defense companies were doing in their local communities to support STEM. Since 2010 we have structured these meetings to provide opportunities for our local member company representatives to engage with the emerging STEM network and other stakeholders in the state. With keynote speakers, special presentations and breakout discussions, we seek to generate collaborative efforts that will be more systemic, effective and impactful. Rocket Launch

Associations involved in the Business and Industry STEM Education Coalition and representatives from their member companies are invited to attend the meetings planned by AIA and NDIA. By the same token, we urge our member companies to participate in state STEM meetings convened by other groups for the same purpose of driving convergence, collaboration and alignment among the array of stakeholders. For 2012, meetings in Indiana, Washington, Tennessee and California are scheduled and others may be organized. We are already considering nominations for states in which to convene in 2013.

News about these meetings and other BISEC events and projects, along with multi-media messages and other materials, will soon be available to everyone via a new online resource. The Entertainment Industries Council, on behalf of BISEC, is building a social networking platform for organizations and individuals with a passion for Science, Engineering and Technology learning and workforce preparation. Although it will eventually include content for and welcome participation from parents, teachers and even students, is initially being designed for and opened up to business and industry groups and their members to share information about workforce needs and the programs and activities they support as best practices. Launch of the site is planned for June. ME



This article was first published in the May 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 5/1/2012

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