Commission rings alarm over aging aerospace workforce

 - April 23, 2008, 12:27 PM

As the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry reached the halfway point in its study leading up to a final report to President Bush and Congress in November, the group called on the nation’s chief executive to create an interagency task force to address industry workforce and training needs.

More than 600,000 aerospace workers lost their jobs between the peak industry employment level in December 1989 and last March, while at the same time the average age of aerospace defense workers is more than 50 years old.

The commission said in its third interim report–issued in late June–that maintaining the required quality workforce is compounded by a primary education system that is “woefully inadequate” in teaching math and science. As proof, it cited a recent national commission report that described math and science teaching at the level as “nothing short of a national disgrace.”

In the next six years, according to the aerospace commission, nearly half of the workforce is eligible to retire, leaving a gaping hole in skills and experience. It warned that young people are not choosing engineering as a career field and a lack of qualified, skilled workers will result in a shortage of aerospace workers in the next decade.

Career Choice for ‘the best and the brightest’
“With the end of the Cold War, the rise of global competition, industry consolidation and growth in other sectors of the economy–particularly in the computer sciences– the U.S. aerospace industry has lost its premier status as the employer of choice for many types of professional, scientific, engineering, production and maintenance workers,” the panel said.

It quoted retired Air Force Gen. Thomas Moorman: “The workforce is the biggest issue facing the industry today. We are not attracting and retaining the best and the brightest.”

To keep the U.S. in the leadership of production, sales and marketing for the 21st century aerospace industry, the interim report recommended that President Bush create an  interagency workforce task force by issuing an executive order, such as former President Clinton did in December 2000 when he created a performance-based organization to run ATC services.

According to the commission, the task force would coordinate programs and initiatives from the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Education and other appropriate agencies to respond to industry workforce and training needs. It also would establish an “industry-based aerospace capability network” to develop public/private partnerships in which all key stakeholders coordinate agency resources, the development of skill standards and certification programs and provide information on occupations and job availability to promote the growth of the American aerospace economy and workforce. 

The industry commission also called on the Bush Administration to develop a national program to attract public attention to the importance of and opportunities in the aerospace industry by targeting high schools, community colleges and universities with engineering schools.

Three other recommendations were made to address workforce issues. The 12-member commission, which was appointed by the White House and Congress, suggested that the Bush Administration and Congress consider targeted tax credits for employers who invest in the skills and training of the workforce. It also urged the Administration and Congress to consider the effect of domestic and international policies on U.S. aerospace employment, as well as reaffirm the goal of stabilizing and increasing the number of “good and decent jobs” in the industry.

Finally, it advocated that the legislative and executive branches of the federal government support recommendations of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century on improving K-12 math and science education; create programs–including scholarships and internships–to encourage more young people to study and work in the mathematics, science and engineering fields; make investments in vocational education to develop a workforce with the skills needed by industry; and expand the use of registered apprenticeships for skilled and technical occupations.

Asked if the commission has addressed aerospace industry salaries, which have been cited in the past as barriers to attracting new talent, commission chairman Robert Walker claimed that one of the reasons the aerospace industry has not paid competitive salaries compared with other high-tech sectors is because the industry “has not been particularly profitable” and “hasn’t had the ability to pay in the same way.”

With the collapse of some of the dot-coms in recent months, the former congressman argued that the situation has changed somewhat, with additional shifts toward the aerospace industry, particularly in defense. “But we have to be sensitive to the fact that the workforce is going to be sensitive to the pay,” said Walker. “The other component of that is that the industry has to have the capability to pay.” He said the commission was looking at it “in that kind of broad context.”

The third interim report also included recommendations involving space infrastructure and the aerospace industrial base. Walker, former chairman of the House Committee on Science, said in a letter to President Bush that the preliminary findings and recommendations in the third interim report are three issues the commission believes require immediate Administration and congressional attention.