Is the aerospace sector doing all that it can to promote STEM subjects as a gateway into the exciting world of aviation and space? Or can more be done?
This week saw a timely workshop held at the Royal Aeronautical Society as part of the Careers and Image Workstream of the Aerospace and Defence Sector Strategy Group (ADSSG), which reports on skills issues to the UK Government’s Aerospace Growth Partnership.
The workshop was timely, not only because of the UK’s A-level results were out this week, which sees students consider their next educational or career options, but also because of the growing ‘skills gap’ challenge now facing the aerospace sector (and other industries). There is now a widening gap, say recruiters, between the kind of highly motivated, maths-savvy graduates they need, and the ones being produced – raising questions over the future competiveness of UK plc. This ‘skills gap’ was addressed by Allan Cook, chairman of skills council Semta at a RAeS lecture at the Farnborough Air Show.
It is not just a UK aerospace problem either. In the US the average age of aerospace workers in the industry is estimated to be in the mid 50s. Meanwhile in Europe, Tom Enders, head of EADS said recently that Europe needs some 12,000 aerospace graduates a year, but only 9,000 graduate and of these up to half switch to other careers. Noting that “Even the graduates that we do attract into the industry do not have the skill sets to match our needs.” He adds: “This is crazy situation.”
The ‘skills gap’
The problem then, is not only one of demographics and getting enough engineers to fill posts for an industry with massive growth projections, but of the right type of workers. Companies report that graduates are applying lacking not only in elementary maths or science subjects, but also lacking in ‘interpersonal skills’. ‘Text-speak’ or the casual voice or email communication it seems has had an effect, with many being unable to craft a good standard of covering letter. This is not only true of those wishing to become engineers. Wannabee pilots, too, are ‘failing the personality test’, with some being found to have short attention spans and having an exaggerated sense of self-entitlement over the passion to fly.
The result is that either key jobs are going unfilled, or that companies are spending time and money re-educating young people by teaching them the basics. But this goes further down the educational chain. Universities, for example, argue the same thing, that the student’s time in the first year, is spent teaching them the basics of science and maths, that they should already know.
The flip side
However, it would be unfair to say that all young people desperate to get into the aerospace industry fall into the category above. Many are driven, clever and extremely numerate. They argue that a lot of the 12,000 aerospace graduate jobs across Europe outside the big companies’ recruitment schemes (eg EADS/Airbus, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce etc) are effectively invisible (Airbus, for example, plans to recruit 4,000 this year). Young people also argue that while aerospace companies advertise how much they want fresh blood, in reality even those with First Class Degrees or Masters are finding difficulty getting work. In short the jobs are going to those with experience – a chicken and egg situation for those seeking work.
Students also argue that companies have failed to keep up with changing salary requirements. While engineers pay comparatively well with better prospects further on, some young people argue that the introduction of tuition fees in the UK has meant that saddled with debts of at least £27,000 (or £50,000 if living costs are included), the imperative for recent graduates has changed. The aerospace industry needs to recognise this. However, one manufacturer confided that tuition fees had been a good thing, as it boosted the attractiveness of paid apprenticeships to students.
Yet a wealth of initiatives
Yet paradoxically while industry complains of a lack of visibility of the sector among young people, and students grumble about invisible jobs going to only those with experience, the amount of STEM, outreach and aerospace recruitment initiatives, just in the UK are staggering. At Farnborough Air show this summer, flash ‘drum’ mobs from Airbus, Lego engines from Rolls-Royce and microlights built by schoolchildren in the Boeing/RAeS Schools Build-a-Plane project were just three of the initiatives wheeled out to spark imaginations and grab the attention of those choosing subjects or considering careers.
Yet the workshop, which had around 60 participants from industry, academia, the non-for-profit sector and other organisations, was a revelation in terms of providing a snapshot of STEM and aerospace outreach initiatives across the UK. Even to some familiar with STEM outreach intiatives, it was surpising how much activity is going on.
Here are just a few of the initiatives (note that this is not a complete list due to some companies not being present and some events (eg Big Bang Fair) being quoted multiple times:
Thales – Challenge the graduates
GKN Aerospace – internships, Technokids
Cut-e – potential careers assessment tests
Brooklands Museum – primary/secondary schools outreach
UK Students for exploration and development of space (UK SEDS) – schools outreach
Astrium – 100 School ambassadors
Yorkshire Air Museum – Reach for the Sky schoolsbook for key stage 2, Big Bang, Flight Paths
GoCracker – new website coming 1 September aimed at graduates
As noted, this is just a snapshot of initiatives and STEM outreach projects, which are expanding all the time. Boeing, for example, at Farnborough launched its Boeing Aviation Studies Certificate’ for 14-18 year olds. Meanwhile the Vulcan to the Sky team has just issued a request for consultations for a Vulcan Engineering Education & Experience Centre (Ve3) which will see the Avro Vulcan XH588 be transformed into an inspirational STEM intiative when it lands for the last time.
Given then, this amount of STEM outreach and activity, what is the problem? First off is that the clustering effect of aerospace companies, means that a lot of these initiatives may be local or regional. Go to school near Filton, Broughton or Warton in the UK, and you may be overwhelmed with STEM activities from the OEMs and their supply chain. Elsewhere, keen children and students may not be so lucky. So one recommendation from the workshop was a database or ‘clearing house’ of STEM projects, so that overlaps and duplication could be avoided or at least reduced to minimum through betterco-ordination.
The second theme emerging for the workshop was that the education system needs change – even down to the primary school level to boost Maths and science subjects. Early deficiencies in maths, it seems are having cascading effects up the education ladder, with each level saying that time was wasted educating students (or recent graduates) on the basics. This seems to be made worse by teachers and lecturers chasing exam league table targets and advising students to drop hard maths or science subjects (where they might fail), in favour of easier ones.
Third was that some at the workshop called for an ‘umbrella brand’ that could encompass these various initiatives and provide and overall coherence, without restricting each organisations different needs and requirements and where they operate, whether at the local, regional, national or even international levels. This for aerospace is complicated by the fact that it not only covers engineers, but also pilots, cabin crew, aviation medicine, air law experts, airline marketing and so on that makes up a wide community and which all are specialised roles.
Finally, the workshop noted that aerospace is also still hampered by the image of engineering and manufacturing. Engineers (at least in the UK) are still seen by some as “greasy middle-aged blokes with spanners” – a reality far from today’s project engineer. The decline of manufacturing too means that not only have many children never visited a modern factory, but also neither have many teachers or careers advisors. The image then of Britain’s dark satanic mills (highlighted by Danny Boyles Olympic opening ceremony) is thus vastly at odds with the reality of the modern, highly skilled aerospace industry, with clean, highly automated factories.
One suggestion here was for the RAeS to host a careers advisors conference to help educate the educators, or at least provide for some continued professional development so that these influencers are up to date on the industry and its opportunities.
Where is the aerospace Professor Brian Cox?
Indeed the image of engineering and manufacturing ties into the question over aerospace’s visibility to the general public at large. Though it peaks in the general media whenever there is a significant story such as an aircraft crash or Mars Rover landing the rest of the time (programmes like ‘How to Build…’ the notable exception) aerospace as a profession or sector is low-key. The Farnborough Air Show, which used to get dedicated week-long coverage on BBC, now only appears in short news segments.
This is despite the huge potential for wider programming that would present the industry in a non-dumbed down way. The rivalry of engineering teams, the lives (and billions of dollars at stake), the excitement of discovery and the romance of flight itself, should make for gripping TV. Yet this has been largely left untapped.
This is also despite the influence of what one person has described the ‘Prof Brian Cox’ effect – where the young, articulate and extremely media-friendly physicist has help to cause an explosion in the popular interest in science, physics and astronomy. But who is Professor Cox’s equivalent for aerospace to enthuse a new generation? Those questioned at the workshop could not name one. Perhaps it’s time to put out a ‘situation vacant’ sign.