|Companies: So far, so good
These are heady times for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. Announcements of
new facilities, expansions of existing operations, mergers and new contracts bode
well for the future.
But underneath the exultant headlines, there is a nagging worry: How will the industry
address a looming shortage of skilled workers?
“We have more job openings in the aerospace and defense industry than qualified
applicants looking for work,” Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President and
CEO Eric Fanning said this summer. Aviation Week’s annual workforce survey
reports that aerospace and defense companies hired more than 50,000 people in
The existing workforce is older, portending a wave of retirements in the not-too-
distant future, and overwhelmingly white and male, a lack of diversity that narrows the
pipeline of potential future employees with the necessary skills.
To address that gap on a national level, the heads of Raytheon, Lockheed Martin,
Northrop Grumman and Boeing gathered at the White House in July to sign “The
Pledge to the American Worker.” They, along with other aerospace and defense
companies, pledged to create and financially support 202,000 enhanced career
opportunities over the next five years, including internships, cooperative education,
continuing education programs, on-the-job training, re-skilling, leadership training
“The foundation of all we do in the aerospace and defense industry is our people,”
Raytheon Chairman and CEO Thomas A. Kennedy said after signing the pledge.
“For generations they have continually pushed the technology envelope of what is
possible, leading to remarkable innovations in civil aviation, space and defense.
However, continuing America’s leadership in these domains is not preordained,” he
In AIA’s Summer 2018 Executive Report, Kennedy said, “We are facing
unprecedented workforce changes – in the form of generational retirements and
extraordinary competition for science, technology, engineering and mathematics
(STEM) talent – that challenge us to transform how we attract, develop and retain
talent to maintain our industry’s predominance.”
A national imperative
In its Annual Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress released in May, the
Pentagon reported 27,000 open jobs in U.S. aerospace and defense companies.
And while interest in the field is growing among young people, only about 1.5 percent
of U.S. 25- to 34-year-olds have a science degree, making for a shortage of qualified
workers to meet current demands and to replace senior engineers and skilled
technicians as they retire.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., represents Alabama’s 1st District, home to such
companies as Airbus, Lockheed Martin, ST Engineering Aerospace and UTC
Aerospace, among many other manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul
(MRO) operations. He also sits on two House committees integral to the topic of the
aerospace workforce: Armed Services, and Education and the Workforce.
“I talk often with a variety of aerospace and defense companies,” Byrne said. “They
are very bullish on their growth potential in this area.”
In the face of that growth, Byrne says the lack of new talent entering the technical
field is worrisome, especially for national defense.
“We hear about that more and more frequently in the Armed Services Committee,” he
said. “If we don’t have the skilled workers we need to make the aviation equipment we
need for the 21st Century, we could fall behind our adversaries.”
Because of the national defense nature of the aerospace and aviation industries, the
federal government has a vested interest in doing what it can to support
development of that workforce.
“We have a problem that’s interstate in nature,” Byrne said, noting that workers
trained in one state don’t necessarily stay there. “And while I am typically skeptical of
federal involvement, I think the federal government has a significant interest in
providing the funding to deliver these students and workers the education and
training for the technical skills they need.”
Byrne pointed to the September passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical
Education for the 21st Century Act, which provides federal support to state and local
career and technical education offered in the high schools and two-year colleges and
technical schools. This act sought to improve on its predecessor, the Carl D. Perkins
Career and Technical Education Act, by simplifying the application process for funds
and providing more flexibility to respond to changing education, economic and
Congress can do more, Byrne noted, by updating and perhaps increasing funding for
the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and by streamlining federal
workforce programs. “We have 46 workforce development programs at the federal
level, spread out over eight different departments and agencies. That’s ridiculous,”
“We need to make it easier for states to access that money and those programs.”
The big question for the region as it pushes to get more aerospace companies is,
are the aerospace companies already here getting the workers they want, and are
they filling positions?
It’s a mixed message from GE Aviation. Mid-level positions are being filled without a
problem, but it’s a bit of a problem with hourly and entry-level jobs.
Through partnerships with local universities and a healthy internal pipeline, General
Electric’s jet engine manufacturing plant in Auburn, Ala., is able to fill mid-level
“We recruit heavily from Auburn University and Tuskegee University,” said Tory
Landry, senior human resources manager for GE Aviation, “and we send them to our
locations all over the world, not just Auburn. We have great access to local students
from Auburn University and Tuskegee University who are completing engineering
curriculums including mechanical engineering, aeronautics engineering, industrial
engineering, and other STEM majors we recruit for.”
It’s a different story for the more technical, hourly and entry-level jobs.
“There’s definitely a talent gap,” Landry said. “We have about 25 openings currently
in Auburn, and we anticipate more in the future.” There’s a particular need for CNC –
Computer Numerical Control – programmers and operators, he said.
GE’s Auburn plant is expanding quickly. It employed 200 people in March and is
expected to grow to 280 by the end of the year.
To get an entry-level job at GE’s advanced manufacturing facility in Auburn, an
applicant must have at least two years of manufacturing experience or a two-year
degree from a community college or technical school. GE finds itself competing with
the area’s automotive and other manufacturing companies for those employees,
recruiting from Montgomery, Ala. to Columbus, Ga.
Successful applicants for machine operator jobs must first complete training at
Southern Union Community College in a curriculum developed by the state-run
Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT) and local GE plant leaders.
Training doesn’t end once GE Aviation hires the employees. Technical employees
are launched on a path to continuous learning through in-house training such as in
non-destructive testing, where employees become certified to evaluate jet engine
components scanned in advanced X-ray machines.
There’s also the Technical Talent Development Program, GE Aviation’s
manufacturing engineering program focused on developing and accelerating
technical expertise across the supply chain. Manufacturing specialist Cedric Hall, 32,
recently started in that program with an eye on eventually becoming a process
Hall, who has worked for the company for four and one-half years, previously served
six years in the Marine Corps before returning to college. He took a job with GE while
earning his two-year degree and took advantage of GE’s program offering 100
percent tuition reimbursement.
Hall is now working on his bachelor’s degree from Auburn University, where he is
studying management information services to bolster his understanding of the
business aspect of GE, at the same time that he expands his technical and
operational knowledge while on the job.
GE’s investment in employees’ education and training is “very encouraging,” Hall
said, and makes for an attractive recruitment tool.
“It makes associates come here with the drive to succeed when they know about
these programs here,” Hall said. “You have all this in front of you if you take
advantage of it. There’s unlimited potential within the company.”
For now, the workforce pipeline is pretty much meeting demand for production and
professional workers at Airbus’s Mobile Production Facility.
“We currently have about 15 positions open,” Stephanie Burt, head of Human
Resources for the Airbus Mobile Production Facility, said in late September. “Within
the first quarter of 2019, we expect to be looking at about 50 open positions.”
During the same period, according to Communications Director Kristi Tucker, Airbus
Helicopters had around 30 open jobs in both their Mississippi and Texas operations,
no openings in Defense & Space and only one or two positions left to fill in
Engineering. The Mississippi facility enjoys ample qualified applicants as highly
trained military veterans in the area comprise 40 percent of its workforce, she noted,
so Airbus meets their training needs in-house and with field training.
“In Mobile, we have a great recruiting and training partner in AIDT, who assists with
new-hire training and some recurrent training for our employees. We fully expect to
partner with them again for recruiting and training for the A220 production facility.”
Tucker added, “We can expect the most growth in the Mobile commercial aircraft
production facility with the addition of A220 production and ramp-up of A320
Asked if Airbus has ready access to qualified personnel, Sharon Field, head of
Organization Development and Training at the Mobile Production Facility, responded,
“Currently, we do. Where we will need to be working is on our future employment
needs over the next two years. We are working with local and state workforce
development agencies to meet that demand.”
Airbus recruits locally and nationally for employees, and when seeking engineers,
also works with local universities to offer internships and eventual job opportunities to
While there’s plenty of competition for skilled aerospace workers, Airbus officials say
that the biggest obstacle to filling the workforce pipeline is lack of public knowledge
about the field.
“There aren’t enough people who know about aviation opportunities and STEM
education,” Burt said. “There are a lot of great businesses here in this area, and
there are a lot of great opportunities to be hired in one of them.”
Airbus’s Mobile production workforce is 15 percent female – an unusually high
percentage in the industry – and the company is working toward an even more
“We need more women in aviation,” Tucker said. “We need more African Americans
in aviation. And we need people to know that there are lots of different opportunities
– it’s not all about having to be an engineer or to be in production.”
Airbus also partners with neighboring companies to build the future labor pool. “For
the past two summers, and looking forward to next summer, we and several other
companies at Brookley Field sent 36 Mobile kids to the National Flight Academy at
Naval Air Station Pensacola (Fla.),” Tucker said. “We’re teaming together because
we’re all trying to build our workforce right here in our community.”
“While competition for skills is fierce, we continue to attract and recruit incredible
talent globally to power the future of our business. In the past 12 months we have
received more than one million applications,” said Cindy Anderson, senior manager
of Boeing’s Government Operations Communications.
“In the Gulf region specifically, Boeing is the largest aerospace employer in Alabama
with approximately 2,700 employees, primarily based in Huntsville,” Anderson said.
“Boeing has 1,750 employees working at multiple locations in Florida supporting
commercial, defense and service customers. More than 600 employees work in
Louisiana, supporting primarily space exploration, with the greatest number at NASA’
s Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans. We expect to see continued
growth in the region.”
While Boeing is continually evaluating its workforce needs, engineers remain a key
hiring priority, primarily in the engineering disciplines of software, systems, electrical,
mechanical, production, flight, test and evaluation, and materials, process and
To build the future workforce, Boeing invests heavily in both K-12 education –
particularly STEM programs – and in universities, Anderson said.
“We partner with institutions to develop future generations of talent through
engagements such as providing opportunities through internships, curriculum
development, as well as research and development.”
Worldwide, Boeing partners with more than 180 universities in 15 countries.
“Near New Orleans, Boeing is partnered with Nunez Community College to develop
talent through an Advanced Manufacturing Technology program. The company
supports an Aerospace Technology program at Calhoun Community College in
Huntsville, Ala. that prepares students for technology-based careers and helps to fill
the talent pipeline,” Anderson said. “During the last five years, Boeing’s charitable
contributions to Alabama universities totaled more than $1 million, in Florida more
than $1.6 million, and $175,000 in Louisiana.”
Writing for the Aerospace Industries Association 2018 summer report, Northrop
Grumman President and CEO Kathy Warden said the aerospace industry can ensure
a skilled workforce not only by attracting new employees through educational
partnerships, but also by expanding the capabilities of existing employees.
“We need to continue to develop current employees at every level, especially as they
advance their careers,” she said. “Learning on the job is a crucial element that leads
Flora Cox, director of Human Resources at Northrop Grumman’s Manned Aircraft
Design Center of Excellence in Melbourne, Fla., echoed the emphasis on continuing
education, noting that Northrop has employees in more than 25 facilities in Florida
“We invest in our workforce to ensure we are developing employees for success
today and in the future,” Cox said.
“We offer employee development opportunities through training and development
within our company and partner universities, as well as education assistance for
Northrop also seeks to build a more diverse workforce, Cox said, and has been the
top-rated aerospace and defense company on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for
Diversity list for nine straight years.
“In February, Lockheed Martin announced a facility expansion and that we’re hiring
at least 500 employees at our Missiles and Fire Control site in Orlando, to support
some incredible new business opportunities,” said Emily Rand, a spokeswoman in
Lockheed’s Strategic Communications, Antisubmarine Warfare. “The company has
had a presence in Florida since 1956, and we think Orlando is an ideal location to
grow our footprint and employment base given the city’s diverse, strong talent
pipeline, available and affordable land with room to grow, and low taxes.
“Being centrally located in the high-tech I-4 corridor enables healthy competition for
the best and brightest talent amongst companies in the region,” she said.
There’s even more competition for technical talent that has, or can be granted,
security clearance, she added. “One of the biggest challenges we face is not only
STEM positions, but identifying qualified people in technical fields with security
clearances or those with the ability to get a clearance that are U.S. citizens.”
Local colleges and universities are doing a good job preparing prospective
employees, Rand said, but more is needed. “Companies, universities, and STEM
organizations need to accelerate that good work and continue to work together,
supporting school efforts prior to college.”
Once new-hires enter Lockheed’s workforce, they can expect lots of continuing
education and development.
“In Lockheed Martin’s effort to attract top talent, we are committed to talent
management, development and retention,” Rand said. “We provide on-the-job
training, career development courses, speaker series and formal mentoring and
networking programs. We also have formal performance feedback and recognition
programs in place as well.”