The aviation industry has hit the perfect storm. In April 2012, when the US space shuttle Discovery made its final flight over the US capital, Washington, DC, it symbolised the withering federal commitment to aerospace and major National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) programmes. To many it was a death knell to a dream that once inspired youths to consider a career in aerospace.

When the space shuttle mission officially ended in August 2011, NASA immediately dropped 3200 contract workers in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The overall space shuttle workforce, which once stood at nearly 16,000, fell to about 1000, Aviation Week magazine reported.

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Losing skills

At the centre of the storm remains the issue of workforce development. Federal cutbacks discourage workers to pursue careers in aerospace. Meanwhile, commercial aircraft manufacturers are finding that skilled workers are increasingly in short supply.

Exacerbating the problem are the scores of aerospace workers who are nearing retirement. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) in Washington reports that 27% of the US aerospace industry’s engineering workforce qualified for retirement in 2008. Several companies report that by 2018, half of their workforce will be eligible for retirement. 

“Defence and NASA programmes are a big part of the projects and programmes that our member companies work on, both in terms of manufacturing and technology development,” says Susan C Lavrakas, workforce director at AIA. “That those jobs are reduced or at risk makes it more difficult to attract, train and retrain skilled people.”

To counter the issue, CEOs from AIA member corporations have partnered with the federal government, state and local entities, and other industries and associations to drive collaboration and more effective programmes at all levels. Their emphasis is on education, since they maintain that the industry requires workers who are well educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We feel this is critical issue, both from a national security and economic competitiveness standpoint,” says Ms Lavrakas.

Chocks away

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, ADS Group, the UK’s aerospace, defence, security and space trade organisation, maintains that for both the UK and Europe, two of the larger factors influencing policy towards workforce development are currency value and national government assistance in terms of encouraging inward investment.

“With commercial aircraft priced in dollars for a company such as Airbus, the value of the euro and sterling are hugely important in terms of profit impact,” says Samuel Jones, ADS Groups spokesman. “Today that situation has eased, but it remains an issue that may one day need to be addressed.”

With China concentrating on establishing the resources and capabilities to design and build aircraft for its own state-owned airlines, it has yet to make a significant impact on the global aerospace industry. “But that is not to suggest that one should close one’s eyes to the long-term ideals or potential threat that China and other emerging nations offer,” says Mr Jones. “It is clear that it will eventually seek to play a much wider role within the global market.”

Consequently, ADS is looking into the option of opening an office in China for civil aerospace activities. “China can also be expected to seek to acquire Europe-based component companies engaged in the aerospace industry,” says Mr Jones.