The space industry, both private and government, is rapidly growing and will likely become a trillion-dollar industry by 2040. While new technologies enable this rapid expansion, it is human talent that will inevitably sustain this growth. However, traditional training and education models, while necessary, can’t bridge the gap fast enough between the specific degrees offered by colleges and universities and the professional skills and standardized knowledge required to sustain the rapid growth of the space ecosystem.
This competitive environment will require a diverse and skilled workforce from the many professional disciplines stemming from both technical schools and traditional 4-year universities. Academia does a great job educating our professional workforce. However, these talented individuals typically graduate with little-to-no understanding of space operations and the space industry. Even aerospace engineering graduates lack the standardized knowledge base and industry understanding of what it takes to design, manufacture, launch, and operate a spacecraft; to include a lack of knowledge of the trade-space decisions made during the design process. Thus, a challenge arises: How do we continuously train and educate professionals, beyond academia, to maximize their talents and contributions to the space ecosystem?
Until recently, the space industry largely encompassed government agencies and the federal contractors that supported these agencies, primarily NASA and the Department of Defense. These agencies and companies relied on a predictable stream of scientists and engineers to support the work that the federal government typically funded. The supply of space professionals and the demand for their skills were relatively balanced. In fact, the demand for these professionals ebbed and flowed as Congressional budgets fluctuated with changing administrations. Before Space X and after the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the industry became somewhat stagnant, and the space workforce began to approach retirement age without a sustaining pipeline of young talent to replace the ones who left .
The rise of commercial space and the increased focus of space-enabling technologies in the Department of Defense changed the landscape and introduced a breath of fresh air into the space industry. As a result, the industry is now rapidly expanding due to private investments and increased government budgets. But that expansion, while enabled by new technologies and funding streams, cannot continue unless we introduce an increasing pool of space-educated professionals into the space economy.
The Space Ecosystem
The emergence of reusable launch systems, miniaturization, advanced computing, and other technologies enabled the creation of the “New Space” industry. Fueled by rapid technological innovations and private funding, this new industry is looking beyond the traditional space missions of old and is firmly committed to expanding the industry and enabling humanity’s progression from an Earth-only species to an interplanetary species. Thus, the industry is and will continue to evolve into a space ecosystem sustained by skilled professionals from many disciplines, both technical and non-technical.
Current Space Training Models
Most space-industry companies and organizations rely on old training models designed during a time when the industry was not competitive and space programs had very long development schedules. On-the-job training and mentorship programs provide professionals a “learn space as you go” model that worked well within the old landscape. However, is this model enough for the competitive space landscape of the future, where people today have more choices and are more apt to migrate from company to company in search of the “best fit” for them personally?
Take the example of a recent mechanical or software engineer, two highly sought-after professionals in the space industry. Typically, these engineers graduate with little-to-no knowledge of the space industry. Once hired, they begin to work on specific projects within their fields of study. They work within the confines of their assigned tasks without a true understanding of why they are working on a specific project or why a certain component has certain design specifications. As they progress in their careers, they “pick up” space knowledge through on-the-job training or mentorship programs, but it’s not until these professionals reach about 10 years of experience or complete a specific Master’s degree that they begin to understand the “big picture” of what it takes to design, launch, and operate a spacecraft and associated space mission.
That model does not work in a competitive field where multiple companies compete to design and launch a specific type of spacecraft or space-based service. The victors of such competitions are those who can do it faster, more efficiently, and at a lower cost than the competition. Space leaders must then ask themselves, “Is the old model of training my workforce sufficient or is there a better way? Is it better to run an organization where people work in their specific stovepipes or is it better to run an organization where every member of the organization has a basic understanding of the industry that they work in?”
The STEM Skills Gap
Humans are more educated today than in any time in history . Yet, a global STEM skills gap exists, which certainly contributes to the talent shortage in the space industry. A 2017 CNBC article stated that as of 2016, the U.S. alone had about 3 million more STEM jobs available than the number of skilled workers able to fill them, according to a Randstad Data survey . That does not bode well for a STEM-focused industry that wants to rapidly expand. There are many theories as to why this is the case, but specific to the space industry, the shortage may be partly due to actual and perceived barriers to entry into the space industry.
Given the complexity of the work involved in space, science and engineering degrees are an absolute must. However, that requirement is a heavy financial and time-consuming investment, especially to those from underrepresented communities without the financial resources or adequate (from a STEM perspective) elementary and high school educations necessary for success in academia.
Complicating the problem above is the general lack of understanding of what is in the realm of possible for STEM graduates when it comes to the space industry. Many simply do not understand the industry and the roles that they could fill. This is likely due to the perceived misconception that one needs to be an aerospace engineer or “rocket” scientist to contribute to the space ecosystem. It’s a perception that is clearly wrong but can certainly sway talented individuals away from the space industry.
Referring to the stated challenge, how do we continuously train and educate professionals, beyond academia, to maximize their talents and contributions to the space ecosystem? Or more specifically, how do we create space professionals from a diverse multi-disciplined pool of talented professionals?
An obvious option is to create skilled space professionals through graduate degrees that focus on space-mission design and operations topics. These programs offer comprehensive tracks of study with world-class professors with years of industry experience in topnotch facilities. They are effective. One such program is from Embry-Riddle and offers a Master of Space Operations program with an estimated total cost of $20,505 . The school also offers a Graduate Certificate in Space Operations with an estimated cost of $8,296. These are very attractive options that offer students a comprehensive suite of courses designed to create space professionals. However, when you consider the space-skills gap mentioned above, is this the most efficient option available to fill that gap? Is it too expensive for an already financially burdened workforce? Do organizations have the time and financial resources to fund the quantities of professionals needed in the industry with graduate programs? While highly effective, a graduate education is a costly and low-student-throughput option, especially for non-engineering space-industry professionals.
Professional-development programs offer organizations the ability to train and educate their professionals with the skills necessary to maximize success within their respective industries. When effective, these programs increase productivity, offer professionals the most up-to-date industry knowledge, increase recruiting and retention rates, reduce expensive turnover costs, offer the ability to hire talent from within, and ultimately increase profits . For individuals, professional-development programs are relatively low-cost options that add or expand the skills necessary for success in their industries or enable a migration into a new industry.
In an article published by E&T, the author states that “Professional development helps you to make the most of your potential and maximize your employability throughout your career; vital in an industry rife with rapidly advancing technology and in a job market which is always changing. It keeps engineers across the industry competitive and, in return, an employer’s most-valued asset, its finely-tuned workforce, if nurtured effectively, will improve a company’s marketability, efficiency and profitability. A skilled workforce is not only more efficient and motivated, but is also more able to adapt to change and keep up with developments in industry and with competitors.” 
However, not all professional-development programs are effective and can even be costly if students do not benefit, resulting in wasted time and money for an individual or organization. There are also options within the professional-development landscape that provide defined benefits and levels of effectiveness. I’ll discuss that topic during the second of this three-part white paper series.
Space Industry Professional Development
Currently, space organizations rely on traditional academic models to fill their talent pipelines with engineers/scientists/technicians and non-technical professionals that support various business functions. Entry-level non-technical employees typically lack the space-industry knowledge to fully understand, at a fundamental level, the process involved in designing, manufacturing, launching, and operating spacecraft. While not essential for their day-to-day business functions, having a basic knowledge of their space organization’s goals, capabilities, and technical practices reduces internal and external communication barriers.
The following is a list of potential benefits for space-industry organizations:
Non-Technical Corporate Workforce
- Increases workforce confidence and participation in collaborative events, improving internal and external communications, and fostering better team collaboration
- Reduces frustrations from a lack of industry knowledge, reducing time spent researching common industry vernacular and concepts
- Workforce gains an understanding of the space ecosystem, allowing for more-pertinent procurements, program commitments, and talent acquisitions
- Increases technical credibility for business development professionals, enabling lasting customer relationships, improving customer trust, and increasing sales
- Increases space-industry technical confidence, enabling identification of more- profitable opportunities and reducing missed opportunities
- Increases technical knowledge of corporate capabilities, fostering the identification of more relevant customers and suppliers
Enhances existing on-the-job training or mentorship programs, decreasing time to competency and accelerating productivity
Standardizes space body of knowledge, creating a multi-functional workforce and reducing human single points of failures
Enhances team communications, saving time spent educating teams on common space- industry knowledge, increasing productivity
Enables the recruitment of non-space professionals, widening the aperture of available talent to enhance talent acquisition
Provides a continuous education path for employees, enabling the retention of in-house talent and the ability to promote from within
Increases talent retention rates, saving both time and capital resources required to acquire and train new talent
Creates a well-rounded and space-educated workforce, reducing technical skills gaps and fostering innovation
When it comes to professional-development programs, the benefits quickly outpace the risks. The largest risk for an organization is to invest in an ineffective program that fails to train and educate its workforce, negating any potential benefits. In this new space ecosystem, the risk may be too high for many of the new startup companies with tight budgets and medium-sized companies with tight production schedules and limited resources. Part two of this three-part series of white papers will discuss some of these potential pitfalls.
Lifelong learning is essential for any professional in any industry. Learning does not stop once someone graduates from a college or university. The same is true for the space industry, especially in this new competitive environment. The demand for skilled space professionals will only increase as the ecosystem expands. Any space organization that wishes to remain competitive must invest in a program that continuously trains its workforce. An effective space professional program is the most efficient and effective option to maintain a diverse and educated space workforce. It doesn’t have to replace existing models either; a good professional-development program can enhance traditional OJT and mentorship programs. Individuals and organizations must embrace skills-based professional-development programs to remain competitive in the space economy, especially as space-experienced human talent becomes more and more scarce.
Miguel Alvarez is the Chief Revenue Officer for Nova Space Inc. He has over 24 years of experience in the defense and aerospace industry, is a physics instructor, a pilot, a lifelong learner, and dedicated to humanity’s mastery of outer space.
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