A Community Effort To Address Aerospace Workforce Development
By Sandy Magnus, AIAA fellow|May 2017
While the U.S. aerospace and defense (A&D) industry currently enjoys a prominent position with respect to global competitiveness and technical superiority—and plays a vital role in maintaining national security and sustaining global innovation—a number of observable trends indicate that its standing may be in jeopardy. Of greatest concern is that only 16 percent of America’s 12th graders are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. In addition, the United States ranks well behind other advanced countries in the percentage of students earning their first university degree in these disciplines. In fact, a May 2016 Aerospace Industries Association report cites that, of the students who declare a STEM major at accredited four-year institutions, less than 40 percent graduate with a STEM degree. A healthy pipeline is vital to ensure the continued success of the aerospace industry.
Addressing these workforce challenges is a top priority of the Institute, and AIAA offers several programs and activities designed to both promote STEM education and stimulate our young professionals’ interests in various aerospace fields. At the K-12 level, the AIAA Foundation supports educators through our AIAA Foundation Classroom Grants Program, which awards teachers up to $250 to promote aerospace through classroom-based STEM activities. Likewise, the Foundation’s Generation STEM program, held in conjunction with annual forums, engages middle school students in exciting educational activities facilitated by industry professionals.
At the collegiate level, the AIAA Foundation offers over $50,000 annually in undergraduate and graduate scholarships to defray the costs of pursuing aerospace engineering degrees. In addition to financial support, students are able to join AIAA student branches and benefit from their programming, including the Student Regional Conferences, which allow students to present their own research to panels of practicing aerospace professionals. Moreover, undergraduate and graduate students can take part in competitions, such as AIAA’s annual Design/Build/Fly Competition, showcasing the practical aircraft design talents of collegiate teams from around the world. AIAA’s Rising Leaders in Aerospace program, with events held at several of the Institute’s annual forums, offers a variety of networking, mentoring, and educational opportunities to graduate-level students and young professionals. Young professionals are also encouraged to take part in AIAA’s technical and standing committees, providing insight into a wide range of topics of relevance to the Institute.
These efforts alone are not enough. They have to be part of a larger strategy and we all need to be aware and involved. We, as a nation and as an aerospace community, must act to address the critical workforce development issues that face us today. Recognizing this responsibility, AIAA teamed with the Aerospace Industries Association to hold a National A&D Workforce Summit last September. The two-day meeting convened nearly 150 leaders from across academia, government, industry, and nongovernment organizations to, among other things, assess how to make our A&D workforce more robust, future-focused and prepared for the ever-evolving global economy.
One conclusion drawn from the summit is that STEM education must begin before a student reaches fifth grade. While several aerospace companies and government agencies have STEM-related partnerships with school districts across the country, we must continue to establish programs at the local, regional, and national levels; ones that reach out to students of all backgrounds. As these students grow older, it is important that they have abundant, available, and affordable opportunities to participate in industry-sponsored competitions, internships, mentorships, and co-ops to foster their love of STEM and gain valuable real-world experience.
Summit participants also addressed workforce retention, noting that industry must place more emphasis on issues of significance to today’s young professionals for the United States to retain its competitive superiority; these issues include career advancement, salary levels, and student debt. In addition to these factors, it is critical to create and maintain a workplace environment that not only emphasizes the importance of diversity but creates an environment that thrives on it.
The obligation falls on the every member of the aerospace community—and AIAA—together with federal and state governments, to stimulate workforce interest and encourage students to select technical fields. Only ongoing dialogue, commitment, and support at the highest levels of both the public and private sectors can ensure that STEM workforce development and retention remains a top priority for our community and the nation as a whole. AIAA members are contributing to this effort, financially and through volunteer opportunities, and your continued support of the AIAA Foundation is critical to sustaining its education programs. Let’s all actively encourage the next generation of aerospace professionals to follow the path we did—for the good of our country and the world. ★