U.S. Space Industry’s Perennial Problem

Business is People!

As interesting as some space industry companies can be, there’s the other side of the commercial space business—its employees. As with any business, employees are critical to their function. So critical, that they make the difference in whether a business succeeds or fails—many times despite or because of terrible management. What most businesses like to do is ignore the many quirks people bring to the table, hoping that potential employees can rein them enough in to fit in their allocated cubicle or open desk. But those quirks can be strengths, for those businesses willing to encourage them.

This is why it’s worthwhile to mention another trend observed during the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago. There were a few panels grousing about the problems of hiring and retaining skilled employees in the space workforce in the United States. 

I have opinions about this topic, as I’ve experienced the job-seeker side of these supposed problems over a decade ago, and I’ve not seen anything that has changed since that time. The rest of this analysis relies on a mix of my observations as well as some supporting data that leads to some logically-driven potential outcomes.

The hiring and retainment problem seemed strangely unbalanced. While the challenge of getting more qualified people into the space workforce has been a constant problem for at least a decade, not one seemed interested in providing a real solution to it. There’s also a bit of dissonance with the circumstances of this challenge. For example, people working in the space industry in the U.S. tend to be paid relatively well on average–typically twice the average employee wage. Also, COVID-19 appeared to have little impact on the growth of the U.S. space workforce.

Those facts tell us a few things. First, the U.S. space workforce is growing, despite publicized lack of qualified individuals. The workforce’s growth didn’t seem to be hampered by the pandemic. And that the people who do work in the space industry tend to have larger salaries. Yet somehow, there are space companies out there who are having hiring problems?

Money and Memoes

Addressing the salary part of the equation–in my experience, yes, people in the space workforce do get paid a lot more. But much of that is tinged with government contracts, which I genuinely believe pay a lot of money for people just to deal with the U.S. government’s **eccentricities**. I have to wonder just how much of the workforce salaries are distorted by these circumstances because, while the commercial space industry is growing, it’s still dominated by government spending. So maybe part of the problem is that while the jobs might pay a lot, most of them may be very uninteresting. That can become an issue for intelligent individuals.

Also, while the average salary is a lot, it’s not the highest-paid average salary in the U.S. by any imagination (currently, being an anesthesiologist is going to net an average of $208,000–double that of the space workforce average). CEO’s come close, with an average of around $186,000/year (no wonder there are a lot of startups, right?). Software engineers, a category the space industry sorely needs, already have an average pay rate more than the space workforce average. Maybe another issue then is the unwillingness of space companies to pay the market rate that Google, Amazon, or Apple do pay for talent. Not that those companies are known for being transparent with employees.

While some may puzzle over the U.S. space workforce’s growth during 2020, the answer is pretty simple: U.S. space workforce employees had to work. The reason for that is that a month after the U.S. locked down in response to COVID-19, the Department of Defense posted a pesky memo that stated that if a company and workers were a part of critical infrastructure and the nation’s “Defense Industrial Base,” they must maintain their “normal work schedule.” The U.S. space workforce is a large part of both. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous space companies certainly took advantage of this mandate. For example, it included activities such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard funride (dubious for defense purposes) and SpaceX’s Starlink launches (ditto).

Sure, employees could have quit in response, but there’s that juicy salary they would have left behind. There’s also the fact that some in the industry would look at them as not being “team players,” despite legitimate worries about winding up on a ventilator. As a result, they wouldn’t be hired into the space industry again. Based on that memo alone, OF COURSE the U.S. space workforce did better than most other sectors during the global health crisis. Still, it would be interesting to see the statistics of infection rates for that workforce.

“Describe the Space Industry’s Weakness and How It Overcame It”

The above information appears to build an attractive picture for space industry job-seekers generally. Again, the pay is decent, and the U.S. space workforce is growing. But the panels still talked about the problem of having a pool of candidates to hire from. Then there’s always the STEM problem, more of which is supposedly the answer to everything (naturally, creatives just have no place in the future). Why might that be?

One of the data sets provided points to a lack of interest as part of the problem. That was according to the Space Foundation. It provided another data point: some of the offered jobs are just not appealing to graduates. Those data points contribute more to the dissonance than provide answers. Especially since the space industry prides itself as the segment that pushes boundaries, explores frontiers in space, and launches rockets–sometimes bigly. So how can there be a lack of interest? What’s unappealing about working in the U.S. space industry?

To be clear, the lack of skilled employees is a problem these companies could resolve immediately. It’s not just a question of more money (although that could help), but something else these companies fully control: their hiring practices and cultures. I admit neither is easy to change. 

Blinded by Science…technology, engineering, and math

Before getting into those topics, the whole dearth of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates sounds dire. After all, what parent doesn’t want their child to do well in those subjects? But that is a red herring that’s been used so much that it’s smelling pretty rank. Frankly, much of the hiring to support space missions, especially for government and military, has little to do with those subjects. Might they help? Sure, but patience, flexibility, patience, working with teams, patience, and, yes, patience are essential characteristics for any business, including space. Here is a set from the U.S. Census Bureau for those looking for data that backs up my experience. That data shows far more STEM graduates than available STEM occupations in the U.S. 

Worse, at least for the space companies, is that many of those educated in the STEM worlds are attracted to salaries and perks offered by companies in the more extensive tech sector or finance worlds. Instead of exploring planets and launching rockets, they work on artificial intelligence and digital ledgers. Of course, there will always be a small subset attracted to space. Still, if space companies want more talent, they must be prepared to compare themselves to all companies vying for that talent, not just Lockheed looking at what Boeing is offering.

Within the Space Industry’s Control

All space companies need to look closely at their hiring practices–ALL of them. The big, legacy space companies are the worst, but small ones do their best to one-up them. Job portals are an immediate impediment and not anyone’s friend but human resources. Those portals are so useless, terrible, and demeaning that a person has to be desperate to use them to get hired. With all the portals, not only is the resume required to get submitted (which is fine), then the company requires filling out fields with the same information. 

Then some, even though they say they don’t, rely on “keywords” to filter down candidates. I’ve even seen some HR folks say they will eliminate candidates who use keywords (which gives the lie to the “no keyword use” claim, otherwise, how would they know?). That reaction punishes job candidates for using a system the companies still encourage and exploit. And if you’re lucky, HR might read some of your resume (I wrote an article about this problem nine years ago). It makes a person wonder if the companies that use them understand how many employees those portals alone turn away.

The postings on those portals are generally terrible as well. They essentially copy and paste customer requirements into the job description and requirements. And when they don’t they use the same obtuse language. As a person who communicates, I suggest they translate those requirements into an easy-to-understand English format. It should be something that basically says:

“The following is a problem we are looking to solve with this position: manage our boutique widget-making enterprise that aids in the artisanal pencil-sharpening mission. It needs to be done on time and at or under budget. We’ve never done this before, but maybe you have. If you have a history of getting programs like this done using these criteria, please apply.

The salary range for this is: $###,###-$###,###

You will also need an active Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance.”

That is what starts the conversation. Then it requires more work, with human resources and the hiring manager (who have hopefully been working together on the best way to get qualified employees onboard). Which leads to the next road bump.

Human resources and recruiters are other potential vectors that turn people away from the space workforce. Recruiters and human resource folks just need to do their jobs…period. I don’t know how often I’ve received copies of a job posting from either group, each appearing to believe I’m one of the following: a person with TS/SCI, a programmer, some sort of cloud security expert, etc. And that’s from people “looking” at my LinkedIn profile. To be clear, my profile makes it easy to understand that I’m none of those. Some of these misguided attempts to “engage” me are from big-name aerospace companies. Some think I am willing to work for them and ask me to put them in contact with potential candidates. Based on conversations with others, I am not the only one dealing with people who are not doing their job.

But the key thing here is that job searches and interviews work in both directions. Prospective employees shouldn’t be the only ones doing the research–hiring managers and HR folks should be showing employees they’ve also done their research. And if HR and the hiring manager don’t care enough to do so when they talk to a new person, how are they behaving to their current employees? That job candidate treatment gives evidence of cultural workplace challenges within companies, waving red flags as vigorously as if in a monsoon. If the interview is not a conversation about how a prospective employee can help the company, that wastes everyone’s time. And since time is money, for each day a company has an open billet, well, that is eating into the company’s profits. For space companies wondering why they’ve had job openings that are open longer than a few weeks, I recommend they look at their HR processes and job portals for answers.

Notice, however, that I’m not suggesting a ball-pit in the lobby, a selection of 50 kinds of cereal in the employee kitchen, or the other trappings associated with newer companies. What I’m suggesting doesn’t even cost money. The opposite would happen if fact–companies would save money. Recruiting and retaining desirable talent is very much about courtesy, doing the work, and talking with people about how they can help companies solve problems. And then keep treating humans humanely as they work for those space companies. Resolving those friction points might increase the appeal of working for these companies while stoking interest in them at the same time.

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