By its very nature, the aerospace and defense industry is always looking to the future. From hypersonic aircraft, to new defense weapons, to space travel, engineers and technologists are constantly envisioning how the world will look decades from now.
But A&D needs to look within as well as looking ahead. Beyond the challenges of the pandemic — which forced businesses to figure out how to keep highly specialized employees safe at work, whether at home or on-site — it needs to plan for its own future. That means retraining current employees, planning for changing workforce needs, and building a pipeline of talent.
There’s no one better to discuss strategic HR planning in the industry than Torsten Welte, Global VP and Head of Industrial Business Unit for Aerospace & Defense at SAP. “The erosion of knowledge workers is pretty big in our industry,” he says. We asked him to elaborate on the biggest talent planning hurdles A&D faces in the next few years and beyond.
Helping Older Workers Collaborate with the Next Generation
An aging industry workforce and layoffs due to the pandemic have made it even more important for older workers to transfer their knowledge and expertise to their younger colleagues. “It’s a big challenge because there’s a technology gap between the two worlds,” says Welte, pointing out that younger workers tend to have lots of theoretical technical expertise while older workers have more hands-on experience.
Rather than leave employees from different generations to connect on their own, some companies are instituting mentorship and apprenticeship programs. Such formal initiatives not only promote knowledge sharing but also cultivate collaboration, potentially leading to the kind of “happy accidents” that uncover new insights and solutions. “That’s the sort of creativity you see in the industry,” he notes.
At the same time, organizations need to adapt to the younger generation’s ways of working. “There can be too much red tape for people with new ideas,” says Torsten. Giving younger workers wiggle room to experiment within the safety net of an established framework supports creativity while minimizing risk.
Refreshing the Talent Pool
Among new graduates and younger workers, the A&D industry suffers from a perception that it isn’t as sexy compared to working for tech companies and startups. To change that, Torsten says, industry recruiters need to shift to a marketing mindset. “The key is to push the brand as an attractive one,” he emphasizes. “They really need to show young people what it could be like to be part of the journey in our world.”
Rocketry challenges and similar programs can show young people as early as high school what it can be like to be part of an industry that can change the way we live. “For instance, why didn’t Boeing ask university students ideas for how to fly safely during COVID?” he asks.”Then track those that show promise and keep in touch with them.”
No longer can HR rely on passive recruitment methods — they need to be proactive, not only to find the right people but to encourage a diverse applicant pool. “Don’t just go for the Harvard guys,” Torsten says, pointing out that tech pioneers Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t finish college. Scholarships and other initiatives that target and nurture smart people who may not have the means to pursue traditional pathways (or the interest in doing so) can attract individuals from varying backgrounds as well as different ways of thinking.
Surviving Through the Pandemic and Moving Forward
As adaptable as the A&D industry is, the pandemic posed some major obstacles: you can’t exactly work from home when you’re a test pilot. Plus, many employees work with proprietary or highly sensitive information, which presents serious security issues in a remote setting. “Some companies didn’t even have laptops for employees,” says Torsten.
In addition to modifying the physical environment with health checks, social distancing, masks, and other protocols to help employees work together safely, the industry engaged in extensive planning to support remote work where possible, such as investing in mobile devices and setting up VPNs and other highly secure connections.
“It was a really big challenge, industry-wide, to establish that safe workplace from a cybersecurity as well as a health perspective,” he says. However, as more job seekers gravitate to companies offering flexible work arrangements, it might be smart for companies to keep some of these changes in place for the post-pandemic era.
What’s Next for the Industry
It’s no secret that the aviation industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, but some sectors perhaps less so. A 2020 publication from the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) reported a 9% increase in space systems sales since 2018, while SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are generating buzz around the possibility of civilian space travel.
Other developments, such as hypersonic flight, look to be more within reach. Torsten suggests they’re also good topics to reignite enthusiasm not just for emerging technologies but for how travel can lead to exploration and discovery. “If you can fly from the U.S. to Europe in a few hours — that’s really cool!” says Torsten. “HR needs to showcase how you can work in this area and create excitement to attract people.”
For more insight into how A&D HR leaders can recruit, retain, and manage quality talent now and in the future, tune into SAP’s upcoming webinar titled, “Managing the Future Workforce in a Hybrid Environment.” After a year that has been unlike any other, it’s important that HR leaders in all industries adapt to the new hybrid work environment and use it to their advantage.
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