WASHINGTON — Recruiting has become a major challenge for the U.S. military as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan press on. But in the quest to protect the country, it isn’t just the government that fears being understaffed.
The aerospace and defense sector is bracing for a potential brain drain over the next decade as a generation of Cold War scientists and engineers hits retirement age and not enough qualified young Americans seek to take their place. The problem could affect national security and even close the door on commercial products that start out as military technology.
The causes of the potential worker shortage are manifold:
• U.S. universities are not turning out enough math, science, technology and engineering graduates to meet growing demand.
• There is fierce competition for technical experts from all corners of corporate America, including booming energy and technology industries.
• Contractors working on classified government programs are hamstrung by government rules that restrict them from hiring foreigners or moving work offshore to other countries.
“The ability to attract and retain individuals with technical skills is a lifeblood issue for us,” said Ian Ziskin, of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp.
Ziskin estimates that roughly half of Northrop Grumman’s 122,000 workers will be eligible to retire in the next five to 10 years. The trend is the same at Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., which could lose up to half of its work force of 140,000 to retirement over the next decade. At Chicago-based Boeing Co., about 15 percent of the company’s engineers are 55 or older and eligible to retire now.
And industrywide, almost 60 percent of the U.S. aerospace work force was age 45 or older in 2007, according to the Aerospace Industries Association.
The roots of this trend go back to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in 1957. That event set off panic that the U.S. was falling behind in the space race. And it swelled the ranks of aerospace and defense workers as a wave of Americans answered a call to help the U.S. regain military superiority and began careers building rocket ships and missiles.
Fifty years later, industry executives fear there won’t be enough new defense sector workers to replace those employees as they retire.
In 2005, U.S. universities awarded 196,797 undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, math and computer science, according to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. That’s up sharply from 77,790 degrees in 1966. But competition for those graduates is intense.
Defense companies today are competing with Google and Microsoft — not to mention Wal-Mart and the Navy — for computer science majors, according to Kimberly Ware, associate director for employer relations at Virginia Tech. They are vying with General Electric, Westinghouse and the big automakers for electrical and mechanical engineering graduates, she said.
Boeing is up against telecom giants such as Verizon and Sprint Nextel as it grows its satellite business. It even competes with video game makers such as Electronic Arts for 3-D graphic designers and software programmers.
“It’s about choices,” said Rich Hartnett, director of global staffing at Boeing. “There are so many more options today with a proliferation in the kinds of degrees and career paths that people can follow.”
At the same time, defense executives acknowledge, the sector does not exert the same patriot pull as it once did since.
The industry confronts another challenge, too. Unlike technology companies, defense companies generally have to hire American citizens since they need employees who can obtain security clearance. This eliminates foreign graduates of American universities and foreign employees in the U.S. on H-1B visas.
“The talent is going to have to be homegrown,” said AIA Chief Executive Marion Blakey.
Similarly, defense contractors cannot outsource to countries with more technical workers, such as India or China.
Against this backdrop, defense companies are reaching out to American students in the earliest grades.
Lockheed Martin is sending employees into elementary schools to tutor students in math and science and is recruiting high school students to shadow Lockheed workers on the job. The company’s engineers coach robotics teams, conduct rocket propulsion experiments for students and participate in mentoring.
Northrop Grumman has established a program called Weightless Flights of Discovery, which allows middle school teachers to experience weightlessness on “zero-gravity” flights that mimic how astronauts train for space travel.
Defense contractors are also trying to market themselves to job candidates with flexible schedules, tuition reimbursement programs and plenty of opportunities for advancement. Above all, noted Linda Olin-Weiss, director of staffing services at Lockheed Martin, the defense industry offers “challenging work on programs of national importance.”
Blakey says that’s just as true today as it was 50 years ago since the U.S. could be facing another “wake-up call moment similar to Sputnik.” She noted that China’s success in shooting down one of its own satellites last year, as well as the upcoming retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet, signal that the U.S. cannot afford to take its technological and military superiority for granted.
And the implications of falling behind extend beyond national security since military technology often has civilian uses, too. The origins of GPS satellites and the Internet are linked to military applications.
But with the U.S. space program planning a return to the moon and a manned mission to Mars, Blakey believes there is at least one event on the horizon that could lure a new generation of Americans into the aerospace and defense industry.
“The question is, how do you encourage young kids to think of themselves as potential scientists and engineers,” Blakey said. “We hope that a return to the moon and Mars will help inspire them.”