Symposium addresses future of work, tech in aerospace industry

symposiumMany representatives of Colorado’s robust aerospace industry agree that their beloved field and its future are marked with tinges of both promise and uncertainty.

“I’m excited to say that the day is dawning, particularly at UCCS but throughout the nation, where we’re beginning to see new opportunities — exciting ways ahead in the fields of engineering and applied sciences,” UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said at a recent symposium hosted by the university.

But while opportunity and innovation abound, companies and organizations are preparing for large waves of retirements, continue to battle fiscal difficulties and strive to be more dynamic in a demanding age of technology advancement.

These were some of the issues discussed during technical workshops and panel discussions at the second annual Technical Symposium of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Rocky Mountain Chapter, which attracted about 175 attendees to UCCS’ Berger Hall on Oct. 25.

The companies provided lectures about their recent research and demonstrations of their newest toys, and also shared their views primarily on three cross-cutting subjects: industry direction, workforce development and STEM education.

Industry direction

Although none of the panelists were prompted to address politics, many of them expressed concerns about how sequestration and other budgetary woes may affect the future of NASA, the defense industry and everything between.

According to data from the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, Colorado’s space economy received the nation’s third-largest sequestration blow in 2013, with a $125 million direct impact, 2,121 lost jobs and a $292 million decrease in the gross state product.

“I would submit that there are many indicators that point to things moving in the wrong direction,” said Russ Anarde, Northrop Grumman’s corporate lead executive for Colorado Springs. “We need to address the situation in aerospace and defense in this country and in this state as a team sport.”

While some facets of the industry related to government continue to suffer, other areas are seemingly prosperous.

Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham said the aerospace industry is among the fastest-growing in the world — expanding 6.7 percent in 2011 and earning more than $300 billion in revenues last year — but 74 percent of its business is accounted for by the commercial sector, which can confuse the public’s perception.

“We might get really concerned if we were only looking at the government business in Colorado, because the budgets are tight and sequestration is crazy — our Congress and government is totally out of their bloody minds,” Pulham said. “But if you look on the flip side of that and ask yourself where is the fastest-growing commercial aerospace company in the world by revenue? It’s in Denver. Part of the challenge is understanding ourselves as a maturing industry as opposed to an adjunct of government.”

A prime example of projects with potential in the state’s commercial aerospace sector is Spaceport Colorado, which is located at Front Range Airport in Adams County east of Denver and scheduled to begin commercial space operations in 2014.

Workforce development

What Shockley-Zalabak said about her university is not merely conjecture: UCCS’s engineering department has doubled its student population in the past five years, increasing 17 percent this fall 2013 semester alone.

Some industry experts are optimistic that the upcoming departure of aging engineers will create great demand, and in turn opportunity, for talented and passionate young professionals to join the aerospace workforce.

“It’s not all doom and gloom, especially for college grads,” said Mike Shilkitus, GPS operations director for Boeing Co. “The important thing to remember about times like these is that there have always been times like these, to one extent or another.”

But even with the swell, aerospace companies could face a difficult time filling the void left as members of the Apollo-era workforce continue to retire.

“We do know that we need to create a whole new generation of scientists and engineers,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia during the symposium. “We see that in that field, we have a lot of people ready to retire and that we don’t have enough young people stepping into their shoes. And as we think about that, we need to think about the changing demographics of our country.”

So Garcia suggests that Colorado’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries will fail to advance in the global market unless the state succeeds in reaching out to under-served minorities in the country’s K-12 system.

“If we do not do a better job of educating, preparing and motivating women, African Americans and Hispanics to go into engineering, we’re not going to have a globally competitive workforce,” Garcia said. “And we need to be very thoughtful and focused about that. We can’t just assume it will happen on its own — it’s not.”

This is also an area in which UCCS has been recently ranked in the College Database’s list of top 50 universities in the nation for advancing women in STEM fields.

STEM education

There’s no doubt that children are the future of the nation, which means they are also the future of Colorado’s aerospace and defense industries.

“We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it,” said James Adams, chief technology officer of TAEUS International Corp., quoting Nobel Prize-winning engineer and physicist Dennis Gabor. “And this next generation is going to invent our future.”

Sixteen of the top 20 jobs in the U.S. last year pertained to the study or practice of STEM, according to Dave Khaliqi, executive director of the UCCS Center for STEM Education.

But how do you get students interested in these fields at a young age? All five participants of the panel discussion targeting STEM represented organizations with education outreach components — TAEUS, U.S. Air Force Academy, WestPac Restoration, UCCS and the Space Foundation — agree that familial and academic support of such education, along with co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that stimulate these interests, is key in retaining and developing these children for a workforce of the future.

“Children should consider a career in STEM because the technology is developing exponentially,” Adams said. “You cannot exist in the world today without touching technology in some way.”

Iain Probert, Space Foundation vice president of education and discovery, added to that idea, explaining: “Employers aren’t so much looking for folks that can use a computer, but those who can design a computer.”