Aerospace States Association Calls for Renewed Focus on Technical Education

 - March 17, 2009, 4:59 AM

Representatives of the U.S. aerospace industry, academia and federal government agencies urged the Aerospace States Association (ASA) last week to pursue its “Call to Action” for the nation to focus on U.S. aerospace competitiveness by encouraging science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) education.

At an ASA hearing on Capitol Hill on March 9, Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO Marion Blakey emphasized the importance of fostering Stem education to ensure a continued strong and highly skilled workforce to replace the many aerospace employees who are approaching retirement eligibility.

The former FAA Administrator pointed out that the aerospace industry has a huge positive impact on the U.S. economy and in these tough economic times, “it is important that we continue to remind lawmakers and others how important our industry is–providing the greatest good to the greatest number.”

ASA is a nonpartisan organization of lieutenant governors and other top-ranking state leaders from every state. It represents states’ interests in federal aerospace and aviation policy development and advocates on behalf of all 50 states for R&D funding, workforce training, economic development in aerospace and aviation, excellence in math and science education, as well as keeping states competitive in a global marketplace.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association president Pete Bunce said GA manufacturers are willing and ready to take the steps necessary “to keep our industry viable and strong, but we must have partners,” and he asked the ASA members to help carry the message to their governors and to the new Congress and the Obama Administration.

“We need sound regulations and policies that focus on measures to help manufacturers and others in the aviation industry retain jobs and encourage recovery,” Bunce said. “With your help, we can send this critical message and work together to help our industry be well-positioned to ride out this economic storm, and emerge healthy with renewed momentum to grow this industry once again.”

According to Jack Harris, senior director of advanced technology for Rockwell Collins, the challenge of attracting the necessary talent and knowledge is an issue of critical importance to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based avionics manufacturer and U.S. industry as a whole.

“That challenge arises from the fact that new global competitors have recognized that to fuel tomorrow’s technology in a wide range of industries, education is fundamental,” he testified. “Witness the reports that China graduates 600,000 undergraduate engineers annually, while the United States graduates only about 70,000. Or to put it another way–to account for population differences–50 percent of all undergraduates in China receive their degrees in natural science or engineering, and the corresponding figure in the U.S. is 15 percent.”

This is a particularly troubling issue for companies like Rockwell Collins. “About a third of our 20,000 employees worldwide are engineers and more than a third of our sales are outside the United States,” Harris explained. “That means we contend every day with international competitors and, as a result, have a fairly good understanding of how our competition stacks up.”

He said almost every single company that Rockwell competes against is larger, and the small company can’t outprice them. “The only thing we can do is outsmart them, which means we have to have the most highly educated, most innovative, most creative people that we can find, but the competition is fierce. We need to get serious about Stem,” Harris concluded.

A Push for NextGen Implementation

At the hearing, Blakey also underscored the significance of accelerating implementation of the NextGen air transportation modernization effort to maximize flight safety and efficiency.

“[NextGen] will make the entire travel experience faster and more efficient by significantly reducing delays,” she said. “It will also create jobs in the ongoing development and implementation phases. And it provides dramatic benefits on the environmental front–one of the most important challenges before civil aviation today.”

But Bunce told the state officials that delays in the FAA reauthorization process have slowed the U.S.’s ability to meet future air traffic demands. And as the new Congress revisits the reauthorization bill in 2009, he said, it is imperative that they make a renewed commitment to finish the bill, capitalize on financing compromises made in the previous Congress and make the development of a modernized National Airspace System a top priority.

“To facilitate many of the economic and environmental benefits of a modernized air transportation system, new aircraft equipment must be installed on commercial and general aviation aircraft,” he asserted. “Incentives to support avionics implementation would accelerate the economic benefits of a modernized transportation system as well as hasten emissions reductions and capacity gains while increasing safety.”