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Millennials Discuss Attracting Young Talent to Satellite

Not that long ago, the space industry was seen as a bit of a dinosaur, a relic from a bygone age. But over the last few years, that perception has been turned on its head, and now the industry is seen as uber hip. The question is, despite that change in perception, could the satellite industry still do more to tap into this dramatic change?

A funny thing happened in the recent U.K. election. Young people became political and rose up to protest. They voted overwhelming for a candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, whose slogan for the election was to “create a society for the many, and not the few.” While Corbyn did not ultimately win the election, the voice of the younger generation prevented the present Conservative government from gaining a majority.

But why is this relevant? What we know is that the space sector holds natural appeal to Millennials as they look to reduce divides in society and bring people together. Via Satellite is riding this wave and is one of the first publications (let alone space publications) to have a Millennial Advisory Board. In this article, we talk to some of the members and ask frankly whether the satellite industry is performing strongly in attracting their generation to join the workforce.

If Millennials could give the satellite industry a mark out of 10 (10 for excellent and 1 for terrible), what mark would they give it for its outreach efforts to young people? Many of our advisory board members said they believe the industry could do a better job. “I would say 7.5 out of 10. I think most of the responsibility should be on the individual to become informed, but the industry could probably do better to reach out and make sure prospective engineers know what to inform themselves about. If there’s one thing I wished I had while going through school was more information on the kind of jobs available in the various engineering fields, and what companies are leaders in those fields. I think I could have then better informed myself since, to a certain degree, I didn’t really know where to start,” said Jordan Irving, systems engineer at Iridium.

Minoo Rathnasabapathy, executive director of the Space Generation Advisory Council, gave the industry a 6 while Libby Khaskin, director of spectrum development and regulatory affairs at SpaceCom, was slightly more generous and gave it an 8.

“Having graduated in a country with a small, but emerging space sector, the initiative to break into the industry needed to be self-propelled. However, this is changing — the rapid increase in the number of countries, private actors and start-ups is revolutionizing our industry, attracting and, more importantly, retaining highly skilled interdisciplinary workforce. The mix of new and existing entrants equipped with feasible business models, if successfully implemented, could open new markets and increase globalization paving the future of the satellite industry, and in turn generating interest from the next generation of space professionals,” Rathnasabapathy added.

Khaskin talks of the industry’s outreach efforts having the potential to be enhanced by reaching out to high schools and universities and offering free courses that would allow the younger generations to get exposed to the industry and to be fascinated by it. She points out that this is already being done in many countries around the globe.

The situation in Latin America is perhaps not as good. Alan Ribeiro, international customer analyst at Embratel Star One, says Star One has only five people younger than 30 and one younger than 35. In other satellite companies in Rio de Janeiro he paints a similar picture, and would only give the industry a 5 in terms of its efforts in reaching young people — the lowest mark given by any of our advisory board members.

Sirisha Bandla, associate director at Virgin Galactic, says the industry has room for improvement. “The industry is getting a lot of help in outreach due to the smallsat/CubeSat revolution and how it’s impacting education. Many university students and even some students in high school are able to build and even launch a small satellite before they even enter the workforce. Industry should bolster these programs and aim to spread to more under-represented areas,” Bandla said.

Not Just Engineers

While a lot about the satellite and space industry is about attracting new engineering talent, one of the interesting themes to come out the advisory board discussion, is whether the industry can do more to attract non-engineers to the industry. Helena Mendonca, managing associate at Veira de Almeida, talked in particular about the need of attracting the next generation of space lawyers.

“Law is still in many cases perceived as a traditional, motionless and tedious area and there is the need to change this perception and show that at least in technological areas and in the space sector, law is also a fast-moving innovative field of work. There is the need to create more programs in space law, encourage the submission of papers in international conferences by the younger generation and highlight the growing legal challenges in this area,” she says. “I think it is also fundamental to continue to guarantee that the gender and geography gap is closed. Especially when an increasing number of countries are investing in the space sector, the sustainability of such investment can only be guaranteed if there are specialized human resources that can develop and use space products and services.”

Mendonca believes space law has a number of challenging legal issues that need to be addressed, especially in light of the privatization and commercialization of space activities, space mining, space tourism, and suborbital flights, among others. “Working in an area that is evolving and changing so fast is inspiring because we are building the blocks of a sector that can fundamentally change our society and how we live our lives,” she adds.

Ribeiro says the space industry has an abundance of engineers and finance people, but that it also needs marketing and salespeople. “In order to have those, the industry should attack universities, and show [people] how it works, the cool stuff about space, and try to get as many interested people as it can. They must conquer the young,” he said.

Alexandru Serban, engineer, network systems at SES also echoes this message, saying his sense is that when young people want to have a career in the satellite industry, they think that that they need to have an engineering degree. In that sense, he says it is similar to how law or finance graduates are bent on working in the big accounting and consultancy firms. “To ensure that the satellite industry is attracting the best talent in all walks, the satellite industry should reach out to various professions and present the enormous amount of opportunities there are for them. This will make sure the satellite industry not only attracts the best engineers, but also the best legal counsel and finance managers,” he says.

Attracting Enough People

While companies such as SpaceX, the poster child for a young, hip space company, is full of young engineers, the overall industry is a bit different in reality. Bandla talks of “keeping the communication flowing” as key. “It is so easy to share information these days and there is no shortage of channels to do so. The area of industry that seems to get the most press with the general public is the launch. So wherever possible, the satellite industry should also be using that event to promote their payload. With the onset of more small launch companies such as Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab entering the market, there will be more launch opportunities that can and should be capitalized for getting the word out about a satellite’s technology and mission,” she says. She talks of schools and universities that are developing small CubeSat programs for science and technology development as well as to train the future workforce and pique the interest of future generations. She believes these programs are a great opportunity for the industry to partner with and attract the next generation of talent.

Despite the industry’s efforts, there may not still not be enough young people coming up for all of the potential jobs. “The diversification of space activities has allowed new innovative companies to be set up by the younger generation and countless start-ups have been created in the space sector. That being said, it seems that there may not be enough young people to replace older generations, especially in traditional space players. In addition, the growth of space activities worldwide will require a space workforce that is much larger and more specialized than what we have seen so far,” Mendonca says.

Rathnasabapathy adds that the satellite industry is continually adopting new technologies that are “mind blowing,” but does not always do a good job of publicizing them in the public sector. She believes as the industry continues to expand, new markets emerge along with increased globalization and greater access to the internet, there will be an increased demand for young professionals to join the sector. However, over the past few years, she believes the satellite industry has become more open to student and young professional events and job-shadowing that provide networking opportunities, one-on-one mentoring, and a platform for the next generation or voice their views on the future of the industry.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

There is little doubt that the satellite/space industry has reached an inflection point. As societies and things become ever more connected, the role of the industry will come under the microscope. Irving believes affordability is key here and will be the biggest driver. “If we can put stuff up into space for less and less money, then it opens up the door for all sorts of new and/or improved applications,” he says.

Ribeiro says when you look at the world now, “no one wants wired” anymore. He says that over the next few years, there will be a wireless migration and the addition of Ka-band and the others to come, will change the way we see the connected world. “For that, I really believe that satellites will have the main role. I like to remember that in 2007 we didn’t have smartphones as we do today. Could you imagine the way we are connected today back in 2007?” he says.

Mendonca says the future for the industry will be defined by small satellites, more investment in space exploration, asteroid mining, space tourism and colonization, suborbital flights, horizontal launches, and reusable rockets. She says they all have the potential to lead to more ground-breaking innovations, but many of them can also contribute to decreasing the costs of space activities, thus revolutionizing the industry.

“With more cost-effective opportunities for spacecraft on-orbit, government and industry can rethink approaches to future programs and ventures. There will no longer be one opportunity to fly a be-all-end-all spacecraft, rather, technology can continually evolve over a program’s lifetime and the threshold for risk in the program may lower,” Bandla adds. “In addition, new technologies in launch are coming to fruition to service the small satellite industry by offering dedicated launch for small payloads. These vehicles will be able to offer frequent, affordable launch solutions for small satellites to deliver their spacecraft to their desired orbit and on their desired schedule.”

Influence of Google, SpaceX and Facebook

These are the hipsters in the satellite sector. While SpaceX has been around years now, the fact that both Google and Facebook have developed a presence has increased the interest from outside the sector. Rathnasabapathy believes that by engaging a wide public audience, this upsurge has provided the space industry with an optimal environment to increase the visibility of the tangible impact space technology plays in providing cutting-edge solutions to societal challenges. By using Facebook and Google’s already established network, she believes the space industry can tap into industries with which it may not be directly associated, allowing these industries to feel invested in space technology in addition to understanding the value of down-stream applications.

Serban says these companies are aware of the power of satellites and how it has connected people, communities and businesses on a global level. “This is the reason why they have invested in the industry and are spending billions on improving the technology,” he says. “At the same time, the traditional satellite industry has also been innovating their offerings to make them more compelling. What the satellite industry needs to do is to make sure their efforts are well-marketed and perceived by all, and that their successes in global reach and coverage are not undermined by the big tech companies.”

Irving adds, “I think they just need to capitalize on — pardon my informal language — how freaking awesome the industry is! I mean, we get to design, build and launch things that go into outer space. We get to learn and use cutting-edge technology to do this. And the applications for space-based technology are numerous and amazing. Just look what you can do with Iridium technology. I could be anywhere on the planet, and speak real-time with another person anywhere on the planet, or send a tweet or Facebook post, etc.” VS