Reimagining Skills for Space
- News Article
A comprehensive space education can make Global Britain the world seminary for space
Space offers huge prospects for economic growth and solutions on everything from climate change to food security. The UK space sector generated £17.5 billion in 2021, an increase of £1 billion on the previous year(1) , in a world market predicted to grow around 11% annually until 2030(2), which allures private investors who provide nearly 90% of the sector’s funding – 63% of these were new to the sector in 2021(3).
Britain wants to become a leader in space technology, aiming for 100,000 jobs by 2030 and 10% of the space market by the end of the decade(4). The preparation looks good with a UK Space Agency formed in 2010, a National Space Council in 2020 and the first ever national space strategy published in 2022, boosted by last October’s announcement for a £15 million fund to revolutionise satellite communications technology(5) and the announcement in May of a new £50 million fund to support the development of cutting-edge research and development facilities.(6)
However, the much-discussed global skills shortage slows our space industry growth.
The demand for scientific skills, all forms of engineering and software skills, including AI, machine learning and data science as well as technical maintenance skills and ‘soft’ skills - particularly in collaboration, is insatiable. High salaries luring Britain’s best brains to top technology companies from Microsoft to Meta, with which our space industry cannot compete, exacerbate this deficit. Small space businesses don’t have the resource to properly train their junior staff, there is an absence of training routes for A-level students and few, if any, conversion courses for experienced workers. There is also a lack of clearly defined career pathways to become a space professional. Industry and government initiatives address some of the symptoms, rather than the root cause and lack a comprehensive vision for space skills, whilst offering even fewer practical solutions.
The 2020 UKSA Space Sector Skills Survey has revealed an industry that is not nurturing the protostars of the future – plans to develop a robust skills base are immature. Our nation’s space workforce is too homogeneous. Not only does it comprise almost 80% of graduates but is also a male dominated workforce(7) , with little hope of change as fewer girls than boys choose STEM subjects at school (in 2019 only 8% of girls took up physics A-level compared to 30% of boys and, astonishingly, only 3% studied IT compared to 16% of boys)(8). The survey also found that recruitment was geared towards either post-graduates or to those with significant industry experience; and that recruiting practices rely on ‘networks’ tapping into professionals already known in the industry. This culture neglects an industry-wide training approach, reduces the pool of skilled labour and causes a lack of diversity and creativity. In short, the industry has an image as the home for male ‘nerdy ‘or ‘boffin’ types, which makes the discipline unattractive to diverse talent.(9)
Now is an ideal moment for the UK to seize the reins as a global centre of skills excellence providing expertise the world needs today and for tomorrow. We are already a beacon attracting world-class talent with three of the world’s top ten universities - and England recently ranked fourth internationally for primary reading proficiency. Seizing this opportunity requires a wholesale vision uniting the immediate and medium-term with long-term development.
An immediate need for skills
Although the UK space industry cannot always compete with global industry salaries, it can apply the lessons learned from the pandemic to offer more attractive working environments, including four-day working weeks, remote working, thoughtfully designed work spaces and exciting career break schemes. Also, while new university courses and programmes are being developed, the experience of the corporate e-learning sector delivering ‘just in time’ content remotely can be used to plug the short-term gaps, together with industry developed and recognised certifications.
For the medium-term
Universities can develop dedicated space degree modules, courses and space postgraduate conversion courses encompassing a range of technical and soft skills relevant to the space industry. Government and industries can invest in higher-level space-sector apprenticeships up to Level 7 qualifications equivalent to full bachelor and master’s degrees: currently space apprenticeships go up to Level 4 to higher national certificates and foundation degree levels.
The MoD as the largest provider of UK apprenticeships can adjust its courses and infrastructure to provide relevant space training. Comprehensive mentoring schemes can draw on the inspiration of veterans and experts such as senior NASA scientist Dr Nicola Fox from Hitchin, former Spaceport Cornwall chief Melissa Quinn and head of the British Science Association, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon to spread knowledge and enthusiasm. While waiting for the current ‘BEng’ graduate courses to fulfil outcomes, we can develop dedicated space engineering degrees among the many engineering degrees, from aeronautical to mechanical, which are on offer.
Universities should also continue injecting space-specific modules into current undergraduate engineering syllabuses; continue devising postgraduate short courses and certificates that convert general STEM degree skills into space relevant requirements; and, as only 26 percent of UK graduates come from STEM courses(10), devise transfer pathways that help graduates from history to art to transfer into the space sector.
These solutions only go so far
Any industry overly dependent on graduate recruitment is unsustainable if it fails to develop vital skills such as, for example, materials development – recycling and reusing materials for satellite design and construction – or general maintenance, safety and security; all needed to maintain and service the space sector industry.
There is a mismatch between the skills needed and the skills provided by higher education. Over-reliance on tertiary education produces people lacking industry specific skills and insufficient practical experience in areas such as systems safety technical skills or safety engineering advice(11). Moreover, university courses can take too long to develop in cumbersome processes which fall behind rapidly advancing technologies.
A concentration on graduates also weakens the sector by overlooking capable young people unable to attend university because of social and economic disadvantage. This untapped resource can fill gaps and revive local communities and businesses as technicians are generally more likely to stay in their local areas than transient graduates.
How do we therefore produce the education system and the space sector to provide cognitive resilience capabilities that keep people and businesses relevant through continuous adaptability?
A groundswell of apprenticeships is a long-term solution
Industry and government must start an education revolution for 14-19-year-olds with an exciting array of schemes that build imagination and confidence through carefully devised apprenticeship schemes and qualifications in technical space craft skills, such as Airbus Defence and Space UK Space Engineering Technician apprenticeship.(12)
Space has no geography, so why should skills? Fundamentally, we must align education, training, technology and business strategies together with inclusion and sustainability initiatives to deliver a truly responsive industry that energises the UK space economy.
We should develop a vision, inspiring children and their parents – who are not yet persuaded about space careers – to consider space as a viable occupation: the UK can lead by developing clear career and qualifications pathways, improving careers information, guidance and support and by transforming industry recruiting practices – other organisations are removing the 2:1 minimum requirement for roles and embracing social media to widen opportunities and improve diversity.
Some specific measures include:
Facilitating industry collaboration with schools/ colleges to create annual ‘space industry away-days’ for every school or college in the country
Creating fully-fledged space GCSEs that focus on hands not just knowledge, broadening the appeal beyond those interested in astronomy
Creating University Technical Colleges(13) dedicated to the skills most needed by the space industry for 14-19-year-olds
Developing dedicated space technical colleges on the same basis as the Royal Navy’s technical college for engineering – or go one step further and create a dedicated space technical college for 16-80+-year-olds, rather like the Fire Service technical college in Moreton-in Marsh, Gloucestershire(14)
Equipping careers advisers including the National Careers Service to promote pathways in technical space careers
Collaborating with the UK’s e-learning and games industry for new skills training which are inclusive, adaptable and responsive such as working with Microsoft and its accessible games initiative.(15) Games-base medical triage training has successfully improved battlefield triage support; and the MoD’s defence e-learning platform was one of the largest in Europe when first introduced leading to significant efficiency improvement
Make the UK the global centre of skills and capabilities
We must build on our national record as a centre of excellence and become a global nucleus for space skills and capabilities. The UK space industry can transform education practices through industry, government and education sector collaboration to achieve this vision.
Careful planning can provide skills needed that will have a positive societal impact, such as using space satellite data to identify future ‘green’ forest investment opportunities and employing social media to disrupt recruitment methods and attract neurodiverse and physically diverse talent and other under-represented groups. (This revolution in skills must incorporate diversity and inclusion across systems, practices and policies.)
Britain was the powerhouse of the world; its industrial revolution was forged not in the offices of Oxbridge but on the floors of factories and the workshops of railways, by people learning their craft as mechanical engineers, civil engineers, machine builders and lathe operators.
If we focus on competences for the young now, not only can we lead the world in space technology we can also become the space-skills trainer of the globe.
1. Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2022 March 2023 P5 https:// assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/ uploads/attachment_data/file/1148037/know.space-Size_Health2022- SummaryReport.pdf
2. Executive Summary: Expanding Frontiers. UK Space Agency May 2023 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/expanding-frontiersthe-down-to-earth-guide-to-investing-in-space/executive-summaryexpanding-frontiers
3. ‘Start-Up Space’, Bryce Tech 2022 https://brycetech.com/reports/reportdocuments/Bryce_Start_Up_Space_2022.pdf
7. Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2022 Updated 31 March 2023 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-size-and-health-ofthe-uk-space-industry-2022/size-health-of-the-uk-space-industry-2022
8. Department for Education Attitudes towards STEM subjects by gender at KS4 Evidence from LSYPE2 Research brief February 2019 P.4 https:// assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/913311/Attitudes_towards_STEM_subjects_by_ gender_at_KS4.pdf
9. UK Space Agency Space Sector Skills Survey 2020, February 2021 produced by BMG Research 2021 https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/964639/ BMG_2081_UKSA_Space_Sector_Skills_Survey_2020_Report_V1.pdf
10. Where Students Choose STEM Degrees https://www.statista.com/ chart/22927/share-and-total-number-of-stem-graduates-by-country/
14. https://www.fireservicecollege.ac.uk/ 15. https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/uwp/gaming/accessibilityfor-games