Professional development - 2013: A space careers odyssey

Materials World magazine
,
3 Nov 2013
Satellite of love

As the UK Government pledges an extra £60m funding to the UK Space Agency for Europe’s space programme, Rachel Lawler looks at the sector’s robust response to skills shortages.

Over the next five years, the UK Government’s total investment in the European Space Agency looks set to reach an average of £240m a year, according to David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science. The industry already employs around 30,000 people and contributes more than £9bln annually to the UK economy. But no matter how much funding is allocated, the sector will inevitably struggle if skilled engineers cannot be found to fill the available roles. Luckily, the UK seems well prepared to source the best candidates.

The National Space Academy has worked with Loughborough College, Leicestershire, to develop the first Higher Apprenticeship in Space Engineering. This follows the College’s launch of the country’s first 16 plus course on the topic. Backed by the UK Space Agency, the course combines A-level maths and physics with a BTEC in Engineering, all taught within in a space context. The two-year higher apprenticeship programme for those aged 18 and over includes a 12-week delivery of the Foundation Degree each year with workplace training for the remainder of the year. Dr Martin Killeen, Head of Technology at Loughborough College, says, ‘We have combined our expertise in space engineering education with extensive industry consultation to create a unique and innovative Higher Apprenticeship framework that will give young people and employers outstanding opportunities.’

The national scheme aims to have 250 Higher Apprentices qualified by 2015 in various sectors, and places could be in high demand. ‘With tuition fees rising, students considering higher level professional progression will certainly be looking for alternative routes,’ says Killeen. Higher Apprentices undertaking the programme at Loughborough College will gain a foundation degree after two years that can be topped-up to a BSc or BEng with two further years of study – all completed alongside work as a trainee.

‘There is a strong likelihood that employers will offer a job at the end of [the Higher Apprenticeship] and they may well consider funding the part-time top-up required to complete the degree. Students therefore develop targeted industry skills as well as academic rigour while their employer not only pays their fees but also provides them with a salary. At the end of the course a person could have four years’ experience, a degree and no debt.’ It is hoped that this course could result in a change in the ageing demographic of space engineering industry workers. Killeen adds, ‘Young people who would previously have been unwilling or unable to accommodate the loans and fees associated with university, or who would perhaps have considered a professional engineering career as being outside their options or beyond their capabilities will now suddenly see a door open that offers another way in.’

This could also shake things up for employers as training new recruits from an early age gives them the opportunity to address their industry’s specific needs. School leavers also tend to be more receptive and are, of course, much cheaper to employ. Killeen says, ‘Unless a work placement is included in a degree course, a graduate enters the labour market with no experience’. Dr Paul Lewis, Reader in Economics and Public Policy at King College, London, discovered significant problems regarding graduates emerging from university without the necessary skills required for engineering careers in his report for the Gatsby Foundation (a charitable foundation working in a range of areas, including science education). Killeen adds, ‘We have worked extensively with the space industry to develop our Higher Apprenticeship programme to ensure it combines both the work-based skills and knowledge to meet employer’s needs.’ Through this scheme, students could progress into senior technician, project and sales manager, design engineer and R&D roles. But apprenticeships are not the only route into this developing sector. Members of the Space Leadership Council have launched a pilot internship scheme this year. The Space Internship Network (SpIN) provides work experience placements for undergraduates studying a range of subjects. Students are given the opportunity to spend at least eight weeks with one of several space sector employers, in a bid to encourage the best graduates to consider a career in the industry. This year, a total of 46 students were placed in 13 different academic and industry organisations.

Kathie Bowden, Manager of the Space@Reading Centre at the University of Reading, UK, and Coordinator of SpIN, worked with companies to ensure that interns get the most out of the scheme. She says, ‘We asked all organisations to design a project that is achievable in eight weeks. We know from research that students who have worked on real-world projects in real-world environments are significantly more employable. We have already seen evidence that this scheme is beneficial, as one physics student who was considering a move to business has since changed his mind during the scheme.’

But as with apprenticeship schemes, the SpIN programme is just as constructive for employers. Bowden continues, ‘ We recognise that hosting an intern can be labour intensive, but a wellplanned project can cover something that the host organisation would like to do but can’t find the manpower for. The placement can also serve as an informal probation period and lead companies to the best new recruits. This gives companies a chance to test drive relationships, which can be particularly important in small organisations.’

It is hoped that the SpIN scheme will run again, as 2013’s programme looks to have been a success. Without any significant advertising, the programme attracted approximately 240 students looking for placements. Bowden explains, ‘We sought a wide range of disciplines to cover all roles – from management and business studies, through to aerospace engineering and physics. Accountants are no less important to a space sector company.’

As the UK aims to capture 10% of the global space market – equivalent to £40bln a year – these schemes could be the answer to engineering skills shortages.

For more information about the Space Internship Network, visit sa.catapult.org.uk

To find out more about the Higher Apprenticeship in Space Engineering at Loughborough College, visit space.loucoll.ac.uk