Turbulent future for aerospace industry

The retirment of Cold Warriors and fewer STEM degrees threaten the nation’s aerospace capabilities.

by Julian Switala

The United States has long been lauded as the predominant nation in aerospace technology and development. With such missions as the Apollo moon landing, the Hubble Telescope, the Galileo satellite and the Mars Pathfinder, NASA has far surpassed other space agencies in the world.

However, what was once a guaranteed space odyssey for the U.S. aerospace industry is now an uncertain, turbulent future.

President Barack ObamaâÄôs recent âÄúEducate to InnovateâÄù campaign is attempting to improve American studentsâÄô involvement and performance in STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Part of the reason for this, as the campaignâÄôs website states, is that, âÄúAmerican students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries, and 25th out of 30 in math literacy.âÄù

This isnâÄôt the only reason why the âÄúEducate to InnovateâÄù campaign exists. Pride in achievement is one reason for the existence of the campaign but not the only one.

The educated workforce that maintained U.S. space primacy throughout the Cold War is aging. According to the Institute for Foreign Policy, âÄú27 percent of AmericaâÄôs aerospace technical workforce is now eligible for retirement,âÄù and that number will only increase.

The problem for the U.S. is that there is an insufficient number of graduates with STEM degrees. The University of Minnesota has experienced a slight uptick in enrollment in the College of Science and Engineering. From 2006 to 2010, enrollment in CSE increased by 761 total students, according to the Office of Institutional Research, for a total of 7,656 students. Of those students, 84 earned a degree in aerospace engineering in 2010, up from 59 degrees in 2006.

Even more pressing is the rapid military modernization steps that China is taking. Christopher Twomey, an assistant professor in the Department of National Security Affairs, has said that China âÄúis researching a wide range of warhead and delivery systems technologies that will lead to increased accuracy and, more pointedly, increased penetration against ballistic missile defenses.âÄù These developments, as he states, âÄúimpinge on the strategic balance.âÄù

As a result, the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research have initiated an intense recruitment campaign in line with the âÄúEducate to InnovateâÄù campaign. These military agencies are now involved because only highly skilled U.S. citizens are able to pass the security clearances necessary for being able to do research in restricted facilities.

In a paradoxical twist, increases in the H1B visa have been part of the reason why the U.S. is experiencing this shortage in qualified U.S. students. Increases in this visa have caused students to reassess their career prospects and degree choices, since companies are more likely to hire a cheap, expendable foreign worker than invest in developing the skills of domestic engineers.

U.S. Army Col. Kevin Degnan despises the H1B visa since it makes U.S. companies vulnerable to intelligence espionage. According to Degnan, H1B visa employee hires learn only bits and pieces, but collectively âÄúthey pass the information back to their home country,and it paints a telling picture of our countryâÄôs defense initiatives.âÄù

Through all of this, Obama has decisions to make regarding national immigration policy and national security issues.

Julian Switala welcomes comments a [email protected].