AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Communicate and Survive

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File photo from 2014 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference.

There are cures for what ails the aerospace workforce, where prospects for future growth are not robust: First and foremost is better communication - to the public, about the benefits of aerospace to society, and to young professionals, about a future vision for the nation's aerospace enterprise.

Equally important remedies include adopting a sustainable, nationally oriented exploration policy, and taking a less risk-averse approach to aerospace pursuits. These were points of agreement among participants in the panel, "Keeping It Going: Sustainability and Growth in Technology and Workforce," held at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference in Cleveland.

Mark Lewis, director of the Institute for Defense Analyses' Science and Technology Policy Institute, stated that, as an industry and a nation, "we need to keep people engaged on large national programs" as a way of inspiring more people to join the workforce. Echoing Lewis's view was Roger Myers, executive director of electric propulsion and integrated systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne. He observed that children become excited when the concept of asteroid mining is discussed, that "they become engaged, interested and excited about a future when they can do that." Neil Garrigan, executive manager of aviation advanced technology at GE Aviation, added that "kids care about the future, not the past - it's being part of the next thing, and that's what makes [space entrepreneurs] Chris Lewicki and Elon Musk popular around the world, because they are future oriented, and that excites everyone."

The panel also discussed the community's seeming inability to communicate its goals and triumphs clearly to the public, leading some to question the value of aerospace activities to the nation. Christopher Singer, the director of engineering at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, said recent surveys show that young professionals in the workforce are not necessarily motivated by money, with salary coming in at "number 5 on their list of motivators." Rather, "good work, appreciation, recognition, and [the idea that] what I'm doing is important [and] cool" are the factors that really motivate them, said Singer, and that is why better, more passionate communication is needed. All panelists agreed that to generate the type of "buzz" that keeps people engaged, members of the profession must communicate clearly, with passion, and with easily relatable, inspiring examples of success.

Another barrier to workforce growth is risk aversion, which clogs up production timelines with endless test cycles, causing programs to drag out over decades - prompting Singer to observe, "Kids don't like delays." Yet another obstacle is the need to compete for young employees with Wall Street and with other popular fields such as renewable energy and patent law. These areas siphon off nearly "70 percent of the emerging workforce," according to Lewis, robbing the aerospace industry of "some of our best and brightest" - but ensuring "a wider distribution of people, throughout all levels of society, who understand what we do."

Proposed solutions to the problem of motivation included establishing long-range goals for exploration efforts; creating white papers for lawmakers that fully explain issues but also give concise policy recommendations; becoming more passionate when we communicate about our activities - while taking care to frame that communication in ways that every audience can understand; and rethinking our aversion to risk - taking the steps necessary to operate safely but ensuring that programs proceed at a rate that encourages people to stay involved. As Singer pointed out, "We did this to ourselves, so we'll have to get out of it ourselves."

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

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