Space company executives, educators and industry leaders convened at the Space Symposium Thursday to discuss what Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of Blue Origin, said is the "biggest challenge" facing the space industry: lack of workers.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs are projected to grow over two times faster than the total of all occupations in the next decade. However, the fast growth of STEM jobs is expected to outpace the ability to supply those positions with qualified workers. Panelists and speakers at the conference discussed the need to recruit workers into the field of space from nontraditional space backgrounds as well as engaging younger students in K-12.
"The job market over the last 12 months is as crazy as I've ever seen, across all industries," said Michael McLaughlin, director of talent acquisition for the tech company L3Harris.
Thursday's panelists and speakers identified the labor issues facing the industry as the desire for employees to work remotely, the cannibalization of the industry when companies rearrange workers among themselves instead of bringing in new talent, and the struggle to tap into the potential of people who don't see themselves as part of the space industry.
In order to face those workforce problems head-on, the industry needs to focus on how it can rebrand itself, said Johannes Torpe, who owns Johannes Torpe Studios, a design company.
"It is very important that when we speak in the future, we speak to people who don't know," Torpe said, "because that's the only way you can attract the younger generation to join the industry."
Lee Steinke, a consultant for the Space Foundation attested that rebranding worked after a company that was not getting job applications for their aerospace software engineer posting renamed the position.
"They looked at the actual skills in the job posting and changed the heading on the posting to video game programmer —which was the same skill set," Steinke said. "They were flooded with applications and built the their program with appropriate staff."
Part of successful rebranding means showing prospective workers that their career in the space industry affects life on earth.
David Thomas, executive director of the MILO Space Science Institute, leads a program called Space Studio Accelerator, a 12-week program designed to increase participation in space exploration and commerce.
"I think we're on the cusp of something that is really transformational, and that is that space is no longer out of reach for anyone who wants to participate," Thomas said. "I think what is special about the space studio is it is going to empower those young people who have a passion have a vision, for not just space, but also terrestrial applications."
But hiring proper staff is only half of the problem, McLaughlin said. Retention is the other half.
When it comes to people with diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, it means companies need to make sure they are providing the proper support for their employees, said Daniel Jablonsky, president and CEO of Maxar, a space tech company.
"It's really important, if you get to someplace that you feel like you're going to belong there," Jablonsky said. "And if you go someplace that you don't feel like you might fit in ... that's probably not the place you're going to work."
Creating an inclusive environment starts with tools such as unconscious bias trainings said Steven J. Isakowitz, president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corp., but lasting change will require sustained dedication from companies and the industry as whole to prioritize diversity.
"We all want to see all our employees reach their full potential and remove those barriers," Isakowitz said.