The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceX employees
As SpaceX and other companies in the industry continue to grow, companies struggle to hire and retain workers. (credit: SpaceX)

Space storm rising

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There is a storm coming for the space industry. The workforce is not large enough to support the needs of the current commercial and government landscape. Without quality talent entering the space workforce quickly, the near vertical trajectory of economic growth will drastically miss estimates. In fact, the storm is already here, as most organizations are consistently competing for the same talent, rather than investing in new professional development models capable of creating sustainable talent pipelines. Stuck in an outdated paradigm for learning and professional development, the space industry must grow out from under this to solve this problem.

Why is this so hard?

Until the mid-2000s, space professionals were largely made up of a small and well-defined workforce at government organizations such as NASA and the Defense Department, along with the industry “primes” who support those endeavors. As displayed in the chart below, the workforce was relatively steady, as some retired, others joined, and the equation largely balanced itself out. With the rise of commercial space and the global space economy, this entire landscape has changed.

chart of industry growth

A wealth of investment has, and continues, to pour into the space economy, with Morgan Stanley and Citi Group predicting space will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040. To achieve these goals, a workforce is required to support the breadth of companies and organizations involved. Unfortunately, this is not happening, which can be seen by looking at the extremely high numbers of job openings across the space industry, both domestic and globally.

From large to small, companies are scrambling to fill positions. The following is a sampling of open positions extending throughout the industry as the time we wrote the article:

  • SpaceX: 892
  • Blue Origin: 3208
  • Ball Aerospace: 286
  • Sierra Space: 264
  • Virgin Orbit: 150
  • Axiom: 195

An internal analysis of space workforce size over the past few years shows an expected average annual employee growth of approximately 30% for space companies. The current state of play sees professionals within the industry hopping between companies, being poached back and forth, leaving gaps all around. Little effort is being made to grow the workforce and bring in talent from outside industries.

The current state of play sees professionals within the industry hopping between companies, being poached back and forth, leaving gaps all around.

So why is this happening? There is currently only a small pool of individuals with space knowledge and experience to fill these positions. Moreover, there is a perceived barrier to entry into the community and a lack of general knowledge at the breadth of careers in space. The reality is that these companies need not only scientists and engineers but also project leaders, technicians, human resources, finance, legal, administrators, and more. People are hungry to be trained and educated, they just need the opportunity. The key is providing the right level of training, at the right career point, for the right position. This may sound challenging, but with current digital education technology it can be accomplished.

At a recent conference, a project lead was discussing adding more foundational space training for the staff of the young space company. The project lead said they thought it would be valuable, but probably not for everyone, such as the HR recruiter standing next to them. The recruiter piped up, saying in fact, that is exactly what they needed to better understand the company and how to best recognize what talent was needed to recruit.

Another example was speaking with the CEO of a much larger established space company about their internal training. He had brought a junior project manager along for the chat and explained how on-the-job training and mentorship worked well for them. Upon asking the junior project manager about how they gained their knowledge and experience, the employee admitted that they had little, and would benefit from more formal space training and education, much to the chagrin of the senior executive sitting next to them. Leadership seems to be stuck following the old model.

The old way

Finding people to fill these roles requires dedicated outreach, motivation, encouragement, and education to prove space has a place for everyone. An approachable way to gain baseline foundational understanding and confidence is key for people to participate and grow within their career path. Otherwise, candidates will drop out believing space is too hard to bet a career on.

Under the old paradigm of small workforce growth, on-the-job training (OJT) and mentorship were seen as the method to instill and pass knowledge throughout a career. This worked when dealing with a small group, but is not sustainable anymore. In fact, it was never the best solution, but in the current environment it fails miserably. Passively listening to someone talk or watching a video lecture, clicking through slides, then answering some questions? You won’t remember much. Doing this while working in a remote environment? You definitely won’t remember much. If it is going to be effective, training must be relevant, spread over time, and demonstrate consequences of actions through practice. That is when the knowledge and experience become cemented and supports future behavior.

The reality is that these companies need not only scientists and engineers but also project leaders, technicians, human resources, finance, legal, administrators, and more. People are hungry to be trained and educated, they just need the opportunity.

As a senior manager in a space company involved in software development put it, “If they are junior, we do spend a lot of time providing internal training and progression paths to ensure they gain their required knowledge.” The sad reality is that relying on OJT and mentorship within the company as the sole source of training and professional development cannot provide the depth of learning and behavior change required to grow this workforce. There is not enough throughput, it takes too much time away from mentor primary tasks, it is not standardized, and it is cost prohibitive to build custom training content inside cash-strapped startups.

OJT and mentorship are quite necessary and are positive ways to share lessons learned, provide guidance and remediate deficiencies. In fact, it is an essential element of leadership. But OJT and mentorship are not appropriate as primary methods for education and training for a few reasons. For one, it is too time intensive for leaders and experts to focus on teaching fundamental learning topics such as space operations and astronautics fundamentals from tip to tail. It takes valuable time away from what those more seasoned employees should be focused on, such as their actual job. Second, there is a lack of standardization, both within a team, company, and the industry at large. Finally, if topics are not properly taught, or instruction ends up being based more on personal experience and opinion, then it likely won’t meet the learning objectives. In most cases learning objectives based on job positions are not even defined in any real way.

Show me the money

What these companies are essentially saying is training and professional development are not important enough to invest in. To put it more bluntly, their people aren’t worth investing in. Sadly, statistics show that in doing so, these leaders are leaving revenue on the table and failing to enable top performance out of their team members.

Other industries have learned this lesson and are more mature in providing these opportunities. In 2018, US companies spent 11% of their budgets on training. The average per employee learner was $1,286, totaling more than $169 billion in North America alone. That is a significant amount of spending on developing their employees, and the statistic is for industries that have a much larger pool of available talent already. So, with the great need to recruit, retain, and upskill in the space workforce, why aren’t companies willing to spend on employee learning and development? Because they never had to before, and they believe they can go without it or do it on their own.

A study by the American Society for Training and Development found that companies that spend $1,500 per employee annually for training see an average of 24% higher profit margin. Now that space is a commercial enterprise, companies are losing revenue and opportunity by not training and educating their staffs. This may have been acceptable decades ago when the Defense Department and NASA where the main show in town, but today these commercial leaders are missing the mark. How would investors and private capital feel to know that the focus of their capital is solely on capability development and not on building a quality team capable of growing and supporting the company goals? The people matter, without them, there is nobody to do the actual work being invested in.

Cost of entry

Building a team capable of creating effective training programs requires more than just subject-matter expertise. In truth, content is one of the least important components in designing learning experiences. Organizations don’t care what people know, they care what people do. Designing for doing requires fully understanding the contextual challenges, simulating performances, and showing in-depth the consequences of actions in many different scenarios. When adding subject-matter experience back into the equation, a great learning and development department includes a whole host of professional talent.

With the large amount of public and private capital being expended in growing the space economy, there is no way to establish the supporting workforce without a paradigm shift within corporate space training and professional development.

On average it takes well over 500 hours to create an effective one-hour-long learning experiences. Morever, that 500 hours doesn’t include project management time to coordinate with stakeholders, review progress, test, and refine designs with prospective students. In, short custom learning development isn’t a one-person job, it’s expensive. As an industry, space needs true professional standards for skill development and application. Utilizing a common curriculum, industry professionals will gain a common performance language.

Out of the storm

The good news is that this problem can be tackled. With a relatively small investment, companies can transform their ability to recruit, retain, and upskill their staffs. The benefits of this are multifaceted, including an increase in performance, productivity, communication, creativity, and ultimately business or project outcomes.

Old methods of training and education, focused on a classroom-type lecture experience or digital slide presentation with question and answer, will not solve the problem and do not scale well. By utilizing modern digital education, companies and learners benefit from not only learning new topics and skills but practicing them in a safe yet challenging environment. This leads to long-term knowledge retention and positive behavior change. Don’t stop the OJT and mentorship; instead, augment it with outsourced quality learning employees can accomplish at a fraction of the cost to develop and implement internally.

K-16 STEM Education: According to a Mand Labs study, about 74% of college science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates do not enter STEM careers. One area industry can do better in developing growth of the overall workforce is to support K-16 STEM. The employees of tomorrow are learning today, and exposing them to exciting STEM topics like space in interesting ways lets them know there is a place for them as they develop. This is especially critical to underserved communities that see a lack of representation in STEM careers. Once those students are graduating college or trade school, space companies must have a professional development program in place to provide them with a foundational space background. This levels the playing field, allowing them to best communicate and understand how they fit into the big picture as they grow.

Talent Transfer from Other Industries: Another source of the future workforce is to draw from other industries or professional communities. As noted above, space companies need a lot more than just engineers and scientists, and everyone working for the company should know enough basics about space to be able to properly communicate and interact with teammates, leaders, and stakeholders. As an example, it is easier to take a seasoned, capable salesperson and teach them about space than it is to take an astronautical engineer and teach them to sell.

Continued Professional Development: Learning never ends, especially in a technically advanced, fast-paced, and growing industry. It is important for companies to provide career-long learning opportunities across the staff. This not only affects job performance, but also individual growth and retention. Continuing to expand the employee knowledgebase also breeds creativity and opportunity as the space environment and competitive market evolves. A small investment goes a long way in creating lasting and dedicated employees.

The space industry cannot afford to ignore this issue. With the large amount of public and private capital being expended in growing the space economy, there is no way to establish the supporting workforce without a paradigm shift within corporate space training and professional development. There is a way out of the storm, and it requires investment by organizations to ensure they can inspire, recruit, and retain the talent necessary to remain competitive and meet the growing demand.

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