The UK Space Agency’s Space Sector Skills Survey, based on a quantitative survey of 96 companies and qualitative in-depth interviews with 21 during autumn 2020 reflecting on late 2019 and early 2020, has been published. It provides some important new data, particularly regarding training. In brief summary:
• Most space companies are looking to recruit. Most are struggling to find candidates with the right skills and experience. Particular gaps are around software and satellite operations.
• The range of skills needed is very wide and there is no obvious single focus for training.
• Retention is a problem for some companies, particularly for large companies and mostly because of pay and poaching.
• Most companies do some kind of training, but there are some significant gaps in training provision.
• There is interest in a generic space graduate development programme to address some of these issues.
How many space companies are looking to recruit? Major points:
• Well over two thirds of businesses are looking to recruit staff with specialised space or transferable skills.
• The highest demand for both types of skills comes from satellite operators.
• Demand for transferable skills is consistently higher than demand for space specialist skills.
How big is the skills gap? Major points:
• Of those looking to recruit, about two thirds had difficulty.
• Difficulty hiring appears to be roughly proportional with hiring demand. Satellite operators face the most difficulty. Larger companies appear to struggle more than smaller ones.
• Approximately half of all space businesses are struggling to recruit, and just under 70% of all satellite operators.
• Main causes for these difficulties: lack of experience (88%); lack of specialist skills (73%); Brexit (61%); competition from other businesses (50%); difficulty getting people to relocate (49%).
Which skills are missing? Major points:
• Technical skills: software (52%); systems (45%); electronics (48%).
• AI comes in at an impressive 38%.
• Demand for other kinds of engineering (mechanical, thermal, robotics etc.) is revealed at 20% and below.
Challenges with retention. Major points:
• As well as struggling to recruit, 23% of companies are struggling to retain. Principally a problem for large companies (52%), with smaller companies reporting virtually no problems (5%).
• Leading reasons for poor retention: pay (41%); poaching (32%); lack of career development opportunities (27%); Brexit (27%).
• Retention seems to chiefly be an issue at the mid-career point, as after a few years on the job graduates realise they’re now a lot more valuable and take the opportunity to jump ship for higher pay.
Demand for training. Major points:
• To address skills gaps, businesses engage in training: 80% did some training (100% of big companies, 59% of micro ones), either on- (73%) or off-the-job (54%).
• Of those: 73% upskilled existing staff in space-related skills; 47% provided some kind of traineeship (graduate schemes, sandwich placements, summer placements, etc.); 26% provided some kind of apprenticeship.
• Most training done in-house by members of staff who were not specialist trainers (69%) or by private training companies (58%). Big companies were more likely to use staff; small companies were more likely to use training companies.
• 40% of companies said there were gaps in current training provision, primarily at the graduate/postgraduate level.
• As with recruitment, the range of skills in demand is very broad, but groups into three main areas: space-specific skills (e.g. GNSS, orbital mechanics, space systems); generic technical skills (e.g. software, data-science, electronics); generic management and commercial skills (e.g. commercial awareness, mid-level management, negotiation).
• The report points out that there is an abundance of training available for the latter two groups as they are not space specific, and it’s unclear why space companies report this as an issue.
Graduates & a sector-wide Graduate Training Programme. Major points:
• Graduates are in plentiful supply, and often entry-level positions receive a lot of applications, allowing employers the luxury of choice within the graduate market.
• But, they often lack skills and experience which appears to stem from a lack of these subjects and skills being taught at universities”, fuelling the need for post-employment training.
• There is considerable interest in the idea of a sector-wide Graduate Training Programme for SMEs.
• 56% said it would be valuable, and another 40% said they’d consider it if provided with more details.
• However, there remains a significant challenge about what this grad scheme would cover given the issues discussed above about the wide range of skills needed in the sector.
• There is also some interest in developing something that addresses not only graduates, but also those transferring from other sectors, a kind of space conversion course.
• The premium placed on space experience extends beyond graduate recruitment, and the report notes that many hiring managers are hesitant to take on personnel who come from different backgrounds, and often are unable or unwilling to train those who come from outside the sector.
• This is a cultural block that the sector is going to need to get past. Demanding experience whilst simultaneously refusing to provide it is a guaranteed route to further recruitment problems.
What next? Major points:
• The sector has a lot of work ahead of it to address these challenges, and is going to need to do so in concert with wider efforts to boost the STEM workforce.
• Further exploring the idea of a generic space graduate training programme seems like a priority, as does getting academia and industry to work together in order to make sure the training given on university courses matches up with those needed by the sector.
• The very high demand for software, data, AI and other related skills puts the space sector in direct competition with the wider tech sector, who have recruitment issues of their own, and often considerably higher salaries.
• The tech sector has already invested a great deal of resources into tackling this problem, and space should draw on the lessons learned from this work in the development of its own strategy both independent of and in partnership with the tech sector.
You can read the full study here.