People are ready to fly again, many countries are renewing their space travel efforts, and Ukraine and Russia are at war. The world is heavily reliant on aerospace and defense, but just as the A&D industry needs workers the most, it faces a daunting shortage of qualified engineers, manufacturers, pilots and technicians. What’s going on?
Changing Expectations of Work
With a third of manufacturers and engineers nearing retirement age, the aerospace industry desperately needs new, young talent to replace its aging workforce. However, it faces a dilemma — younger generations have different expectations of their employers than did their predecessors.
1. Remote Roles
One shift in thinking happened during the pandemic when many companies started offering remote jobs. People found that working from home reduced their stress, saved them money on commuting and gave them a greater work-life balance.
A 2021 survey found that 58% of workers would look for a new position if they couldn’t continue working remotely in their current job. Aerospace offers few work-from-home positions, potentially making it less attractive to job seekers.
2. A Need for Speed
Younger workers also prefer jobs that move quickly across all levels of the organization, but aerospace and defense companies tend to operate at a more relaxed pace. Many still use paper records to keep track of aircraft maintenance and proof of airworthiness. For an always-online generation used to conveniences like online banking and Amazon Prime, aerospace operations can feel frustratingly slow.
3. Rising Wages
Pay can be another pain point. At the same time that labor costs are increasing for the aerospace industry, workers are demanding higher wages to cover rising costs of living — and many can afford to be selective. The strong labor market is saturated with more open roles than there are workers.
4. Work-Life Balance
The pandemic caused many people to reevaluate what they wanted in a job. Many workers began questioning if their employers provided a safe work environment and whether they valued and took care of their staff. A renewed focus on racial and gender divides sparked broader discussions about workplace equality.
So many people have quit their jobs since the pandemic that journalists are calling it the Great Resignation. People have left in search of better wages, more respect, greater opportunities for growth and roles that align with their values. STEAM jobs are no exception — 69% of aerospace and defense companies reported increased turnover from 2021 to 2022.
The aerospace industry should emphasize diversity and inclusion, acknowledge worker values and strive to give employees a better work-life balance. A good salary may attract talent, but other benefits will help keep it.
Worker Shortages and Shifting Roles
Another reason the aerospace industry is struggling to attract talent is a dramatic restructuring of the labor pool.
1. Women Staying Home
During the pandemic, many people in caretaking roles — especially mothers of young children — left the workforce due to school closures and disruptions in childcare. Some stayed home to care for sick family members and aging parents. Aerospace already struggled to attract female workers, and these additional burdens in the home made it even harder for women to apply.
2. In-Person Job Closures
There was also a strong transition out of jobs that required in-person interactions during the pandemic. Many businesses that previously operated in a physical office switched to remote work, sent people home without pay or closed altogether. Aviation suffered from an image problem, reinforcing worker perceptions of the industry as unstable.
Consequently, many people switched to remote jobs and didn’t look back — or had no workplace to return to when businesses started reopening. Even behind-the-scenes aerospace positions tend to be team-oriented and rely on people showing up to work in person, so applicants overlooked these jobs during the pandemic.
3. Deaths and Disability
COVID-19 killed almost seven million people worldwide. The U.S. lost 1.9 million workers to COVID-related death or disability from long-haul symptoms, accounting for 18% of unfilled jobs in 2022. It will take time for the working population to recover — both literally and figuratively.
4. Engineer Shortages
Engineers and trade workers are in very high demand as both positions face steep worker deficits. There are currently over 624,000 aerospace engineers in the U.S., but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the aerospace industry will have 3,800 openings for engineering roles every year from 2021 to 2031. Many of these positions will come from the need to replace retired workers or people who transfer to different occupations.
5. A Shift From Hardware to Software
Traditional aerospace and defense jobs focused heavily on hardware engineering. Today, the demand for skilled software engineers is skyrocketing while traditional engineering roles are harder to come by. Engineers must redirect their focus to learning software skills that will aid them in their job search.
High Expectations From Employers
Another factor that can scare away potential applicants? The multiple qualifications employers expect from workers. Applicants often have to pass strict educational requirements and security clearances to work in the defense sector. Aerospace positions usually require at least a bachelor’s degree, and college tuition presents a high barrier to entry for many people. The result is an industry-wide hiring issue.
Competition With the Tech Industry
The tech sector is doing a good job of hiring the software engineers the A&D industry needs. Tech companies often pay much higher wages, offer more benefits and allow remote work where employees can set their own hours. They also frequently supplement employees’ salaries with stock awards and performance-based bonuses. The technology industry is booming, providing a sense of job security for years to come.
Relaunching the Aerospace Industry
There are numerous reasons the A&D industry needs help finding and retaining workers. Chief among them are changing employee expectations, strong competition from the tech industry, worker shortages and high barriers to entry. The nature of engineering is also changing and people are seeking fast-paced jobs that integrate technology.
Aerospace and defense companies must invest more in diversity and inclusion, give employees greater benefits and rethink their workplace policies to attract new talent. The industry may be heading into a tailspin, but its future is still up in the air.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine, an online publication that explores innovations in science and technology.