Military, Regulatory

Improving STEM Education, Industry Diversification Keys to Workforce Growth, Report Says

By S.L. Fuller | January 9, 2017
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James Lankford, an Aerospace Engineering graduate student from the University of Maryland, was inspired to study aerospace by his uncle — a former West Point engineer and retired Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior pilot. As highlighted in AIA and AIAA’s “2016 National Aerospace & Defense Workforce Summit: Proceedings Report & Recommendations,” Lankford wanted to be just like his uncle. However, Aerospace Industries Assn. (AIA) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) underlined that the industry is near starved for people like Lankford. One cited study found that nearly 27% of the nation’s industry workers are older than 55. As the current workforce retires, it needs to be replaced.

AIA AIAA recommendations for helicopter industry interestAlthough there are no other mentions of helicopters, the report and recommendations are pertinent to the aerospace and defense industries as a whole. The summit, held during two days at the beginning of September, found that a major factor in the decrease of interest in the industry in terms of the up-and-coming workforce is the lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in grade school. Summit attendees made recommendations for policy and recruitment as well as education.

One conclusion drawn from the summit was that STEM education should start before fifth grade.

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“We must seek equity for all children, because they do not come to school on an equal basis, and a big gap is that schools are not equipped to address their difference,” said U.S. Congress Rep. Mike Honda in the report. “We must focus on what each child needs, and focus on preschool. Most STEM programs begin in fifth grade, but many students are [disengaged] by then.”

Recommendations include routinely articulating industry workforce concerns and practices to federal agencies and members of Congress, and collaborating with Congress and committees to craft legislation that will bolster economic competitiveness and job opportunities in the industry and encourage education and training programs the industry requires.

The onus also falls on businesses and organizations to drum up workforce interest and technical ability, the summit reported. Developing new business and academic partnerships was one recommendation. Advocating for support to expand the most successful local regional programs to stakeholders and government officials was another. Businesses should, the report stated, expand its external reach to engage students through competitions, internships, mentorships and co-ops.

Another cause, the summit reported, of the low workforce numbers is diversity. An Aviation Week study found that Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos currently represent 21.1% of the industry workforce. The study also found that women were a minority in the industry, at less than 22% of the workforce and 20% of the industry’s executives. Along with recommending a better focus on recruiting and retaining minorities, the report also recommended addressing career advancement, salary levels and other issues to young STEM professionals — including student debt.

AIA and AIAA had pre-existing goals for U.S. STEM education and workforce development. “Revised to reflect summit input,” the report's conclusion included goals to enact STEM-focused national policies, diversify mentoring, generate additional data to gain more insight, demonstrate workplace evolution, market the aerospace and defense industry, and create effective models and measurement.

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