If the aerospace industry can’t keep young people on board, what will the future of space exploration look like? That was the question at hand at a morning discussion hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)’s 2017 SciTech Conference in Grapevine, Texas. The long and somewhat grueling panel was candid about the struggle to get young people interested in space engineering on Tuesday, and explored potential solutions to prevent a future space industry devoid of fresh blood to replace an increasingly aging old guard.
For today’s executives in aerospace, it was an obvious career path from the beginning. With missions like Sputnik and Apollo piquing their interests as children, it’s no wonder everything was about space in the 80s and 90s. But, kids these days don’t have that iconic mission to dream about. Sure, we talk about putting humans on Mars, but with no clear timeline in place.
So, the root of the problem isn’t just that young people don’t want to build spaceships — it’s more of a branding problem. With places like Google, Facebook, and Apple to compete with, theres nothing driving the aerospace industry’s cool factor.
But, as the panel pointed out, the potential for innovation isn’t all wrapped up in Silicon Valley.
“Do you want to work on an app thats going to get you a better fill in the blank social media perspective or do you want to do something that’s going to enable the exploration of the farthest regions of the universe?” asked Robie Samanta Roy, the vice president of Lockheed Martin.
What are these big companies doing to bridge their differences with millennials? Well at one point during the panel, Kevin Parsons, director of Northrop Grumman, literally hit the dab. It was the opposite of captivating.
Aside from these dad-like dance moves, the execs actually have a few ideas up their sleeves.
Doug Ebersole, executive director of the Air Force Research Laboratory, says one of the biggest deterrents for young people thinking about aerospace as a career path is the lack of programs in the field that would allow them to get their feet wet early on. The lab created a summer internship program, which made a huge difference in getting young people thinking about space engineering early on.
But, he found that once hired at the lab, they would go on to different research facilities or even different areas of study entirely.
“When we do exit surveys with young people their reason for leaving is always the same: they felt like they were on an island,” said Ebersole.
Young people tend to hop around the job market, not staying in one place for too long and like to explore multiple areas of research at once. Traditionally, older folks would find something that matches their financial and personal needs and stay for 40 plus years, but that’s just not the case anymore. So, to change things up, these businessmen discussed ways of allowing their youngest employees to move freely between disciplines within the same company. Now, just throw in a seltzer machine and yoga space and the millennials will come flocking.
But, it’s more than just surface level attractions to the aerospace industry that are missing, it’s the passion. As Roy said, young people need to be reminded that in aerospace, there is as much science as there is art.
As we’ve seen in recent big budget films, like The Martian, Gravity, or even Interstellar, the technology that could let us access the expansive beauty of the rest of the universe is beginning to look more and more realistic. The idea of living on Mars or traveling to other worlds far away used to be a distant dream; now it feels like its almost here.
While the fact that the space industry is struggling to recruit and retain young talent is discouraging, the fact that they’re already aware of the problem is a good start. There looks to be quite a few solutions already in mind, and hopefully we’ll start to see a bigger pool of thinkers jumping from college to aerospace with dreams set of making space exploration cheaper and more feasible.
A quick word of advice to the execs at these companies, however: stop dabbing. Please.