ATEC BLOG:  Can NASA Reclaim The Innovation Narrative?

The aerospace and defense industry is facing a crisis. Since 2008 there have been public projections of a labor force shortage. Many engineering majors straight out of college begin working for web-based companies, or choose careers in non-traditional fields. For example: hardware and software system development for the banking industry. This presents a problem for organizations like NASA and The Department of Defense.

Problems With The Workforce
Due to so many skilled workers retiring, the demand for new generation X and Y engineers in the Aerospace and Defense industry has risen steeply without a balanced supply. Some might find this strange if they recall the large push NASA had in popular culture during the 80s and 90s.

The majority of generation X and Y children grew up in an environment where aerospace and science infiltrated all areas of pop culture. Movies like "Space Camp," and "War Games" took over the box office in the 80s. Due to the popularity these films many children wanted to attend NASA's Space Camp and become a part of the new technological future. More families visited space museums and purchased science kits. Commercials for products like Moon Shoes and memory foam took over television.

A decade later programs like the Aviation Challenge encouraged children to find an interest in aerospace as well. One advertisement showed a child surrounded by an aircraft simulator with the headline, "This summer, dodge enemy aircraft instead of mosquitos."

Being a part of space travel and the wave of the future was a campaign for the upcoming generations. There was an unspoken social responsibility to dream. This focus on creating a future of engineering marvels, coupled with such a large presence in media: one would think NASA couldn't possibly have a shortage of engineers.

What Happened?
In 1998, a small garage start-up named Google entered the world and in the coming years there was a rise in other tech start-ups. This created a new industry that required all kinds of engineers. In 2001 Apple reclaimed its business standing by releasing the first iPod to the public. Like NASA in the 80s and 90s: Apple, Google, and other start-ups sold a dream of the future. Soon the word innovation became leading business jargon. NASA's general narrative since the 80s was always 'we create the future.' Google and Apple began to change the narrative by telling the public 'we are the future.'

Space Camp 2.0
In 2009 NASA began funding Central Connecticut State University to run a youth education curriculum called Go For Aerospace! (GFA) The project consisted of a year-long extracurricular program designed for high school juniors with high potential in math and science. Mentoring and an introduction to NASA's engineering faculty were seen as the best ways to encourage students to seek careers in aerospace and defense. A 2011 study titled "Go For Aerospace!: Recruiting the Next Generation of Engineers," was conducted based off the pilot enrollment group. Though the researchers viewed the program as successful, examining the results shows that GFA may not have been a major determining factor on whether or not students had interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It is easy to conclude based on the study's metrics, that many students already considered being engineers. Projects like GFA, and Middle School Aerospace Scholars (a program that encourages Texas teachers to incorporate engineering into their curriculum), help symptoms of the issue but don't solve the overall problem.

The Final Frontier
Creating new interest in engineering is only part of the solution. Due to budget cuts many government agencies are struggling to compete against the private sector. Larger marketing budgets allow other tech companies to have a constant presence in the social consciousness. Through funding youth programs, NASA is creating engineers only to later turn them over to Google and Space X. Rather than focusing on creating interest in the industry NASA and the Department of Defense should focus on answering the basic question... Why should engineers work for them?

There is still time for NASA and The Department of Defense to remind the public why they are the future. Though educational programs help ensure new interest in engineering, this is not enough to secure a new labor force. If NASA can learn from the messaging used by the private sector, they too can captivate the public once again.