Guest post for SC Aerospace by Jason Marlin, President, Champion Aerospace, LLC
A skilled workforce is the backbone of the aerospace industry. The industry’s highly technical nature, paired with the rapid growth in demand for air travel, a record number of aircraft in the backlog and the fact that it’s growing faster than underlying GDP, requires skilled, experienced workers, most of whom are currently Baby Boomers. Whether it’s component and system manufacturing, aircraft maintenance technicians or pilots, the demand for highly skilled workers will only continue to grow as the current workforce reaches retirement.
As the number of retirees outpaces millennials preparing to fill these roles, the aerospace industry faces a significant risk – the actual workforce will decline until we address the issue and find a solution.
This is a challenge we are currently facing at Champion Aerospace. Our highly skilled manufacturing workforce has an average tenure of nearly 20 years. These years of expertise are an asset for our business, but also a double-edged sword as they will begin to retire in the next five to 10 years.
At Champion Aerospace, we’re working to minimize this risk in two ways.
First, we’ve partnered with local colleges and technical schools like Clemson University, Greenville Technical College and Tri-County Technical College to establish co-op programs in product engineering, manufacturing engineering, electronics assembly and machining. These programs are a win-win because we’re able to develop and evaluate the next generation of talent while helping students gain real-world aerospace manufacturing experience.
The second way we’re addressing the potential risk of retirees outpacing new talent is by continuing to invest in technology and automation. In other areas of the industry, autonomous and partly autonomous technology in commercial aircraft is being used to alleviate issues like the pilot shortage in coming years. Similar technology, namely robotics and automation, can play a similar role in the manufacturing process. Technology is improving the quality, consistency and productivity of manufacturing highly-engineered aerospace components, which has historically been a challenge due to the high mix, low volume present in aerospace manufacturing. The declining cost of today’s automation technology coupled with the ease of programming equipment for multiple tasks or operations is ameliorating this issue – a necessity given the forecasted addition of more than 10,000 net new aircraft to the global airline fleet over the next 10 years.
Tomorrow’s workforce needs a more evolved skill set; they must be more technically savvy with electronics, programming, troubleshooting and the repair of automation and robotics equipment. The rapid evolution of technology creates a constant need for training and education like that offered by the South Carolina Technical College System. It’s critical that college and technical schools continue to focus on keeping curricula current as technology rapidly advances within the aerospace industry. It’s likewise critical that industry leaders continue to work with schools and programs in their area to ensure that all needs are being met and that programs continue to be valuable to building our workforces.