Florida’s role pivotal to expanding the aerospace work force
Last month marked the 60th anniversary of the Space Age. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, jolted America out of our technological complacency. Fortunately, we responded to the challenge. We invested in a generation of scientists and engineers through the National Defense Education Act. We created NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to assure America is never surprised or surpassed by rival powers in space or by new technologies.
And within 12 years, we were launching crews from the Kennedy Space Center to the surface of the moon. Our country during this time also pioneered the jet age in air travel and developed the breakthrough defense technologies that helped win the Cold War.
Currently, our nation depends more than ever on an aerospace and defense industry that spurs innovation in space, civil aviation and defense to enhance our nation’s strength, security and economic prosperity. And Florida is pivotal to our industry’s record of innovation.
We all marvel at the commercial and government rockets that take off from Cape Canaveral to lowEarth orbit, the planets and beyond. We are more secure thanks to the state’s many military facilities that protect our homeland and, in the case of the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, help project U.S. power throughout the globe. Florida’s role as an air transportation hub for the Caribbean and Central and South America enhances our nation’s prosperity.
With its rich space heritage, strong education and research infrastructure and vibrant, business-friendly environment, Florida hosts many of the nation’s leading aerospace and defense companies. These companies employ the 76,000-plus workers who account for 10 percent of Florida’s exports and 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Today, at the Harris Corp.’s Technology Center in Palm Bay, leaders from industry, state government, academia and nonprofits are convening to talk about the aerospace and defense work force. The goal is to pursue greater collaboration and partnerships in efforts to inspire, teach and recruit the next generation of aerospace and defense industry scientists, engineers and leaders.
So how is this goal best achieved? In addressing science, technology, education and math work-force issues, we often think about the challenges of adequately resourcing our schools, providing incentives to bright young teachers, and engaging parents and students in the adventure of STEM learning. Our industry plays a huge role in these educational activities, and we work hard to communicate with students, parents and teachers about the rewarding and exciting careers we offer young people.
For example, at the Aerospace Industries Association, we’re proud of our signature STEM program, the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The world’s largest student rocket contest, TARC, has inspired thousands of junior and senior high-school students to pursue the disciplines related to our industry. One of our educational partners, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, offers a scholarship for TARC participants.
We also know, however, that our industry must do more to develop a work force that mirrors the diversity of our country. Women, for example, make up only 30 percent of Florida’s aerospace and defense work force. Also, with more than 25 percent of Florida’s aerospace and defense work force at or nearing retirement age, we need to pay more attention to the incentives young professionals have for choosing and staying in our industry.
And we must do a better job of training noncollege-bound students for good aerospace and defense manufacturing jobs with expanded career and technical education training and community-college partnership programs.
The Senate can help advance progress on work-force issues by sending the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which passed the House unanimously in June, to the president’s desk as soon as possible. Both Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio recently sent a letter urging the relevant committee to do just this.
The issues being addressed in Palm Bay are not abstract. If we don’t refuel our technical talent pipeline with young professionals and technicians who not only have book smarts, but also the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to overcome complex challenges we can’t even anticipate today, we as a country will not remain competitive in the long haul.
That’s why Florida’s commitment to engage a variety of stakeholders in investing in the development of its aviation and aerospace work force is a most welcome development.
Lt. Gen. David F. Melcher (U.S. Army, retired) is the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.