Addressing the talent drain in the space sector
Space has inspired countless generations of people who have marvelled at the night sky. It’s no wonder then that the space sector proves to be an attractive option, especially for fresh graduates and early career engineers. But the realities of a sector where remuneration for highly-skilled engineering talent struggles to keep pace with other industries means it is hard for space businesses to retain good talent.
After all, a passion for space will only last so long when bills need paying. If the UK wants to achieve its potential when it comes to the new space economy, it's essential that its blossoming space startups can compete for the best engineering expertise.
According to 2022 government figures, around three in five (58%) space businesses in the UK, expected their headcount to increase by 2025. Almost half (46%), however, said they were finding recruitment to be a barrier to growth, especially growing and late-stage companies, who cited particular problems in accessing high-quality candidates.
Most people working in the space sector hold at least a first degree, making them the most highly-skilled group of employees in any industry. But with average salaries falling short in comparison to other sectors, such as engineering, tech, and finance, the space business simply isn’t financially attractive to new talent. It becomes even more difficult to retain them. Many rocket companies will have had first-hand experience around the challenge of retaining skilled engineering talent, with graduates and early-career professionals being enticed away to more lucrative and established sectors after only a few years.
The fact is, many people interested in working in cutting-edge engineering and technology often look to automotive, consumer technology, racing teams or aviation giants, often unaware of the opportunities offered by the space industry. It’s vital, then, that, in light of more lucrative and potentially attractive alternatives, more is done to encourage people to consider careers within the UK’s burgeoning space sector.
Space startups have a battle on their hands to attract talent beyond just those with a passion for space. Many early-stage companies are bootstrapped, and often less well-funded than their counterparts in other sectors like the airline or automotive industries. There are initiatives out there run by the UK and European Space Agencies, along with private investors, to help get startups commercially ready, but greater levels of support from the government and patient capital are vital at this stage.
Awarding more substantial and long-term contracts, rather than just grants, to innovators as opposed to companies founded over a hundred years ago, will help put space technology companies on a surer footing financially. And, with better finances, they can then hire and retain the high-quality talent typically frustrated at comparatively lower salary levels.
Greater awareness is essential, too. The UK’s space sector is a growing part of our economy, worth over £16.4 billion per year and employs over 45,000 people across the country. Its technologies play a critical role in our daily lives whether it’s satellites to keep us connected or to support our defence and monitoring systems. And yet, there is still a great deal of education to be done around the UK’s potential as we aim to become a global space player.
To date the UK has still not conducted a vertical commercial orbital launch from British soil. As an industry we must stop idling on the launchpad and forge ahead with sovereign control over launch capabilities. This will serve as the stimulus the UK space sector needs to boost its growth and, in doing so, make the country’s space startups that much more attractive to the engineering talent they seek.
Looking to the future
Despite the concern around employing the right talent, there is a sense of optimism around the UK’s space sector. During the year 2020/21, its growth outpaced that of the global space industry (+5.1% vs +1.6%), with UK-headquartered space companies attracting investment of £635m in over 34 identified investment deals.
The hope is, therefore, that with greater support, we will see more developments like launch and other technological breakthroughs which will galvanise the sector. By working together with the government to push the UK’s agenda and with ongoing financial support and awareness, the UK’s space startups will keep hold of valuable talent and enjoy further growth – and successful launches – in the years to come.