Imagine you’re a young twenty-something and you’ve just graduated college. The entire world is open to you — particularly an entire world of jobs, because you just earned a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) degree and the world craves STEM graduates. You’ve caught the space fever and you want to make waves in the industry. You want to actually change the world, and you’ve got the technical skills to back you up. Of all these opportunities you want to choose the one that will allow you to do cool things that matter and affect all of humanity. Where will you go?
There’s a pretty high chance you won’t go to the satellite industry.
Space is inherently cool. This is one advantage that satellite companies have from the start. But it can become a disadvantage when companies think that’s enough to recruit top young talent. “We make satellites, that’s freaking awesome, what more could they want?”
Well, to start, recent graduates might want to know you exist. I was recently talking with a group of computer science graduate students from the University of North Carolina and NC State University. When I said I had just been in Washington, D.C. for the SATELLITE 2015 Conference & Exhibition, their response was, “Satellites? Like… satellites in space?” You and I think, “What else would I mean?” but this is an alarmingly accurate representation of young techies’ knowledge of the satellite industry. They had no idea that satellite companies wanted anything to do with computer scientists like myself and, by induction, like themselves. Yet, as satellite hardware becomes more commoditized and software becomes a focus, the industry is starving for qualified software engineers. Tech companies are famous for their enthusiastic recruiting (of all young people, not just those in 4-year degree programs) and success in recruiting the best young minds. Where are the satellite companies?
Another lesson the satellite industry might learn from tech industry successes is the importance of culture. Many people, including my past self, are inclined to think company culture is more of a mechanism for recruiting or for soliciting media attention than a necessity. But company culture actually results in better engineering, products, and ideas. When you feel emotionally invested in the team you are working with, you will invest yourself more in your work. You are more likely to learn from your coworkers and vice versa, and the entire company will perform better. Young, talented people recognize this and thrive in this sort of environment and so they seek it out. Today, the satellite industry hums the song of the cubicle farm. Am I saying every satellite company needs to install a ping-pong table and a kegerator? By no means. But I do claim that every satellite company would benefit from focusing some resources on culture and individual happiness.
The tech industry is famous for its youth. Tech companies have long recognized that young does not mean inexperienced, and so the concept of an “entry-level position” doesn’t really exist in the tech world. In the satellite industry you might be stuck in a position without leadership and technical power for years. If young people aren’t enabled to do something that feels monumental to them in their first year, they’ll go somewhere they can. I’ve heard managers in the industry complain that “kids these days” never stay with a company for more than a couple years. And they are right to leave, because this happens when they are no longer learning from the company.
The future of the satellite industry is in question because its workforce is in question. This concern is evidenced by the growing trend of young professional activities at space conferences this year and programs like SSPI’s Better Satellite World, which challenges us to think about a world without satellite engineers and thus without satellites. Some satellite companies have recognized the necessity for change and have been successful in usurping high-profile tech companies and government agencies in hiring top tech talent.
Satellites are awesome, and working on satellites is awesome. If satellite companies can make small changes to address these issues, the future of the satellite workforce and thus the satellite industry becomes much brighter. VS
Hannah Kerner serves as the Chair of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) USA as well as the Chair and Program Manager for the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace Conference. She works as an onboard software engineer at Planet Labs and will begin a PhD in Exploration Systems Design at Arizona State University in the Fall.