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Brain Drain Could Ground Aerospace Production

May 15, 2008
Industry task force offers dire warning if workforce challenges aren't met.

The U.S. aerospace industry faces declining workforce numbers that could result "in a disastrous loss of intellectual capital for the industry" if measures aren't taken to attract more skilled applicants, according to a report released in early 2008 by the Interagency Aerospace Revitalization Task Force. The study concludes that a lack of U.S. students with strong math and science skills coupled with a graying workforce and recruiting and retention challenges could leave the industry with a major skilled-worker shortage.

While the industry is heading for its fourth-consecutive year of employment growth, with a projected total workforce of more than 637,000, the total employment gain was only 7,700, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, the number of production workers grew by nearly 26,000, indicating that the nonproduction workforce is declining. The five most difficult positions to fill include engineering-related jobs in avionics, electro-optics, propulsion and power systems, complex enterprise architecture and integration software, and systems engineering, according to the report, citing the Aviation Week 2007 Workforce Study.

Like other manufacturing sectors, baby-boomer retirements are expected to hasten the void. The federally appointed task force cites a 2002 report that notes about 26% of aerospace workers will be eligible to retire by 2008, and the Aviation Week study indicates that as of mid-year 2007 at least 40,000 jobs were available in the aerospace sector. The industry also is plagued by image problems and security clearance issues for prospective employees. In the past, opportunities for innovation attracted employees to aerospace positions, but the industry ranks last among the number of patents per employees, the report says, citing the MIT Lean Aerospace Research Agenda. Additionally, applicants aren't prepared for the stringent background checks often required for aerospace jobs, meaning past criminal histories can disqualify them, further limiting the candidate pool.

The report's authors suggest three strategies to address what they consider to be the most significant challenges related to securing a skilled aerospace workforce. They include:

Aircraft industry workers such as this one overhauling a CFM56-3 engine are in short supply.Sustained collaboration -- utilizing federal resources to develop long-term collaboration between governmental agencies and the aerospace industry. The task force wants to engage the federal government to help communicate to youth what behaviors, such as drug abuse or arrests, could disqualify them from aerospace industry jobs.

Integrated investments for aerospace -- strategies related to education and training, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The task force will focus on building a stronger pipeline of skilled workers through traditional educational pathways and nontraditional means with models that support apprenticeship and workers transitioning to the aerospace industry. One possible initiative is a partnership between the task force and state manufacturing cluster programs that involve stakeholders from educators to industry groups who help develop curriculum, standards and guidelines for various industries.

Knowledge sharing, inventory of model solutions and dissemination of results -- working with industry partners to develop an Internet-based interactive resource that can be used to promote potential workforce solutions such as STEM education and training. The tool, funded by federal, state and local governments, would also serve as an organizational vehicle that articulates all stakeholder responsibilities.

The task force formed in 2006 after Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) introduced legislation to develop a strategy that would address workforce challenges in the aerospace industry. The bill was signed into law by President Bush in December 2006. The task force is headed by the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training who, along with the president, appoints members and administrators.

Among the task force's goals for 2008 are the development of action plans, the creation of Web-based learning sessions to promote model strategies and the strengthening of established partnerships.

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