Workforce development for the aerospace industry
Oklahoma has a legacy of aerospace innovation and success dating back more than 100 years, with pioneers like Wiley Post, who launched his career of exploring the limits of high-altitude, long-distance flight in our state. Today, some of the world’s most successful aerospace companies operate in Oklahoma. So why isn’t aerospace the state’s leading economic sector?
If you said a talented workforce, you hit the nail on the head.
Just about everyone is doing their best to close the yawning skills gap that is eating away at America’s status as the leading high-tech powerhouse. Locations far and wide have gotten the memo: an educational system that graduates students with STEM skills is essential to create an available workforce that can attract today’s high-tech projects. Nationwide, we need hundreds of thousands of STEM-oriented grads to meet the needs of emerging high-tech growth sectors.
In the OKC metro, major aerospace sector employers like Boeing and Tinker Air Force Base have a near insatiable appetite for a qualified workforce. The Air Force Sustainment Center’s Executive Director, Kevin Stamey, in October told Oklahoma City business leaders that a pipeline of skilled labor, especially people who are STEM oriented, is needed.
"Even our blue-collar workforce is depending more on STEM as we increase the use of robotics and advanced manufacturing techniques like 3-D printing," he said. "Unfortunately, our pipeline of engineers is woefully insufficient. In particular, Tinker alone could hire every electrical and software engineer produced by Oklahoma.
"For the Air Force to succeed in this new strategic environment, we need three things: We need to find a way to go faster. We need to find ways to reduce our acquisition and sustainment costs. And we need to find ways to innovate our way out of this dilemma ... by finding ways to leverage technologies to require less manpower. That will help us regrow our technological edge."
A panel of experts echoed that need during the Oklahoma Aerospace Forum Oct. 30.
“One of the issues we face in Oklahoma City is the fact that we are primarily known as the home to many of the nation’s top oil and gas firms,” said Phil Busey, Sr., founder, chairman and CEO of Delaware Resource Group. “But we have a tremendous opportunity in Oklahoma with blended industries between oil and gas, healthcare, aerospace and others.”
What, in the name of Wilbur and Orville Wright, is a blended industry?
Borders between industries are quickly blurring: retail is strongly linked to supply and logistics; tourism & hospitality is about travel & leisure, so it impacts automotive. Some car manufacturers state that they are energy companies, linking with utilities. Media and sports are entertainment businesses; and so on, so forth.
“Over the past two or three months, a lot of the larger aerospace OEMs, universities, other companies, cultural groups in Oklahoma City, including the philharmonic, are all looking at a way that we can promote and work with the Chamber to promote the fact that we have a great culture here,” Busey added.
But why is quality of life important to aerospace industry companies?
“We have a two-pronged uphill fight,” he said. “We don’t have enough talent in the pipeline right here in Oklahoma City. We also have an issue of selling Oklahoma City. This is a problem that affects all of us.”
“Where we are today, we’re looking for experienced engineers,” said Jason Thomas, senior recruiting officer for Boeing. “As a long-term goal, the work that companies and universities are doing to advance STEM degrees is great, but, in the short-term - the next five years or so - those mid-level engineers? There’s just not a lot of them in Oklahoma, so it’s important that we have all of the things we need to entice them to move here.”
“Every week, we’re looking at workload, and when you look at the next five to ten years, we’re only limited by the number of engineers and computer scientists that we can hire,” said Michael Jennings, director, 76th Software Maintenance Group, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex at Tinker Air Force Base. “The majority of the people that I hire are entry-level because the pool of experienced engineers in the Oklahoma City-area is just not deep enough.”
How do we remedy that shortage?
“We have to do a better job of explaining what systems engineers do, what computer engineers do, and the incredible systems they’re involved in,” Jennings said. “The sky is the limit as to what we can accomplish here in Oklahoma. But the talent pool is the limiting factor in trying to accomplish that. It’s a national STEM issue and Oklahoma really has the opportunity to step up.”
“Making sure that our teachers know what types of jobs – and the requirements for those jobs – are out there is a key component in the development of Oklahoma’s workforce,” said Dr. Marcie Mack, director of the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education. “We want to make sure that we bring that educational opportunity to individuals as they have that desire and passion for it, but we also want to make sure that we are meeting the needs of business and industry. Otherwise, we are not doing our job. We have to work at the speed of business and our curriculum and classroom work that they have must emulate what they will see in the workforce.”
Crystal Maguire is executive director of the Aviation Technician Education Council, a national trade association whose mission is to promote and support aviation maintenance technician education. Its membership is made up of aviation employers, vendors and educational institutions with maintenance technician programs.
She agrees that the sector’s growth, low profile and aging employees have contributed to the skills gap. But among the recent bright spots is that women make up 2.3 percent of the certificate mechanic workforce, up from 1.7 percent in 2001, according to the 2017 ATEC report.
“I had this really interesting conversation with FedEx,” Maguire said. “They are starting to look at moms, like empty nesters, females who maybe got out of the office while they had kids. They are looking for pilots as well as mechanics. It’s a huge untapped resource.”
ATEC has begun putting in place a national awareness campaign called “Choose Aerospace” to communicate all of the sector’s opportunities to the masses, she said.
“Industry will start getting more involved in the education part as their demand grows for their workforce and they see the need to develop these pipeline programs,” Maguire said.
“We have expanded our membership four-fold in the last few years because we’ve been targeting industry more, saying ‘If you guys are going to have who you need, you need to get involved with your education partners.’”
The Oklahoma Department of Commerce recently announced the launch of the Oklahoma ACES (Aerospace Commerce Economic Services) Program, a membership organization. Created under House Bill 2578, the primary goal of ACES is to establish a common statewide strategy for the growth of the Oklahoma aerospace industry.
“As Oklahoma’s second largest industry, aerospace is critical to our state’s economy,” Vince Howie, director of Aerospace and Defense for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said. “The ACES program will bring together Oklahoma’s aerospace leaders — industry, military, education and more — to support and foster growth of the aerospace industry.”