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AEDC commander, UTSI executive director discuss aerospace workforce challenges, opportunities

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

The need to attract more employees to careers related to the development and support of hypersonics and ensure those who pursue such jobs are ready to contribute on day one is not lost on officials in academia and the U.S. Air Force.

Arnold Engineering Development Complex Commander Col. Randel Gordon and University of Tennessee Space Institute Executive Director Dr. John Schmisseur discussed the current state of the aerospace and defense industries, workforce needs and how government, industry and academia can collaborate to address challenges during a July 13 presentation at UTSI.

Much of the discussion during the event, hosted by the Tennessee Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, focused on workforce development in fields related to hypersonics.

Schmisseur said the continued treatment of hypersonics as an “exceptional technology” due to infrequent launches that are considered “special events” has created an issue, as excitement over such technology tends to wane between launches.

“Over time, as we’ve treated hypersonics in this manner, what we’ve done is we’ve driven the workforce out,” he said. “Everybody gets excited and then goes away.”

Now, potentially thousands of new hires with knowledge in hypersonics are needed across the aerospace and defense industries.

Steps are being taken in academia to not only boost interest in the study of hypersonics and the pursuit of related careers but also to provide non-doctoral graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to immediately deliver results in new hypersonics jobs.

UTSI, which has hypersonic facilities where students can conduct experiments and research, is part of the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics. According to its website, UCAH is an inclusive, collaborative network of universities working with government, industry national laboratories, federally funded research centers and existing university affiliated research centers that deliver the innovation and workforce needed to advance modern hypersonic flight systems in support of national defense.

UCAH has launched or participated in initiatives to spur interest in hypersonics and get students at various educational levels thinking about how such technologies could be used to serve others. One such program is the Need for Speed Hypersonic Video Contest, during which students from across the country created and submitted videos demonstrating ways in which hypersonic flight could benefit humanity or presenting challenges that prevent it from becoming an everyday reality.

With that, efforts have also been made to get students thinking about hypersonic work in national defense careers.

“Inspiring students on what they can do in terms of national service is still an important thing for us,” Schmisseur said.

Schmisseur added that most employers seek new hires who already possess experience working with hypersonics. One way to address this, he said, is to place a greater value on master’s degrees and create opportunities for students seeking them to attain a level of expertise in hypersonics through increased laboratory work and hands-on research.

“We want to produce those students who have those lab scars, who have that relevant experience and are ready to hit the ground running,” Schmisseur said.

For its part, UTSI is planning to create opportunities for students seeking bachelor’s degrees, Schmisseur said. This would include engagement with AEDC, helping to create a future workforce pipeline for the complex. Schmissuer also mentioned that he was set to meet with the dean of engineering at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville to discuss a new program called the Department of Applied Engineering. The goal is to provide industries and organizations such as AEDC bachelor’s degree recipients who are prepared and ready to begin contributing right away.

Gordon said hypersonics are a “generational leap” compared to where the aerospace industry is currently.

“I see that as gigantic potential, and there are number of investments that are happening at Arnold with which to try to capitalize on that,” he said.

Gordon said one interesting change he has observed in the world of academia in recent years is the ability for students to conduct applied research with direct relevance to either national defense or the commercial sector, as students can take what they’ve gleaned from book learning and apply it in real-world settings. This, he said, allows students to bring experience and readiness to the table when seeking aerospace jobs.

“The ability to actually go out and bend metal and to do things and to build stuff and to actually fly it and go do something with it, that was really hard for folks in my generation but not so much anymore,” Gordon said. “That is really fantastic.”

Aerospace aspects once under government purview, such as satellite launches and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have been disaggregated, creating opportunities for the establishment of aerospace-related ventures. Because of this, Gordon said now is a great time for those interested in pursuing such career fields to act.

“The more and more I think about it, the more I see what opportunities are sitting out there and I go, ‘This is the time,’” he said.

Both Schmisseur and Gordon pointed out many technologies that have improved the quality of modern life were initially used in military applications. He said this message and its pertinence to hypersonics is conveyed to potential UTSI students, as graduates can play a role in the development of hypersonics for national defense and help evolve hypersonics into commonplace usage.

“We talk with students about the excitement of being able to shape what’s going to happen going forward and the role they’re going to play creating new opportunities to keep us safe and then eventually connect us,” Schmisseur said.

Gordon said although there is not currently a “commercial case” for hypersonics, this was also the case for the internet and GPS, both of which began for military use. If hypersonics is further developed, as these now-common technologies were, it could lead to high-speed travel becoming accessible to much of the population.

“If the tech is reduced and the cost is reduced to be able to do that, think of what that could mean in the world,” Gordon said.