Aging aerospace workforce seeks young talent in Aurora


AURORA | On the far end of the Cherry Creek Schools Institute of Science and Technology sits a room that would appear more at home inside an airplane hangar.

Flight simulators that mimic a cockpit sit along two walls, and model airplanes adorn the ceiling.

Jay Moore, coordinator of Career and Technical Education at Cherry Creek Schools, said the classroom on the Overland High School campus helps high schoolers link with college-level aviation programs and, hopefully, aviation careers after that.

It’s one of several programs at local schools and businesses aimed at getting more young people interested in the aerospace industry as thousands of baby boomers — many lured to the industry at the height of the space race — eye retirement.

In Aurora, where the biggest employer is Buckley Air Force Base and Raytheon, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin employ close to 4,000 people, the concern is particularly acute.

Susan Lavrakas, a workforce specialist for the Aerospace Industries Association, said that for the past decade aerospace leaders have feared a retirement rush was coming. As such, they’ve thrown their resources at encouraging young people to pursue science and math degrees and, eventually, aerospace careers.

“We can’t wait for somebody else to solve this,” she said.

According to an annual report last year, more than 25 percent of the industry’s workforce was over the age of 55, and more than 10 percent were over 61.

Lavrakas, who has been in the industry for 34 years and is transitioning toward retirement, said many of those workers were drawn to the industry because of excitement surrounding the “space race.”

But that excitement didn’t last, which meant hiring sometimes dipped.

“The energy behind that kind of faded over the last 25 years,” she said

But, Lavrakas said, while things looked especially bleak for the industry a decade ago, the economic downturn in 2008 actually helped.

“A lot of people like myself decided to work a few more years than they otherwise would have,” she said.

Now, the AIA’s report last year said, even if retirement rates were to double, the industry is looking at only about 5,000 retirements a year, a number they are in a better position to handle now than they were a decade ago.

Still, the industry faces a challenge from high-tech companies that are looking to lure the same engineering and science students aerospace firms want, she said. Those companies can boast non-traditional schedules while much of aerospace remains a more-traditional workplace. Plus, Lavrakas said, aerospace companies also often require government clearances and recruiters, because of national security concerns, often can’t discuss the day-to-day of a prospective job in ways other industries can.

And certain jobs within the aerospace sector are facing their own specific retirement crunches.

Willie Daniels, founder of the nonprofit Shades of Blue and a commercial airline pilot for almost three decades, said his industry is girding for a serious lack of capable pilots.

Daniels, whose organization tries to steer young people into the aviation sector, said that within 12 years about 69,000 pilots in the United States are projected to retire.

And — because the military relies more on drones so it doesn’t crank out pilots like it once did, and constantly-climbing flight-training costs — Daniels said the industry doesn’t have a pool of replacements ready to take those seats in the cockpit.

Daniels said that’s where Shades of Blue aims to help. Daniels said the organization doesn’t just send pilots to meet young people and sell them on the high-paying, world-traveling career.

“We didn’t just want to go in and say, ‘Hello, I’m an airline pilot, be like me,’” he said.

Instead, Daniels said, the organization works closely with young people and tracks them all the way through college. Once they have a degree, Shades of Blue links them directly with the human resources departments that could score them a job with the airlines.

Still, Lavrakas and Daniels said, without the space race ginning up interest in the industry the way it once did, aerospace is going to have to find ways to consistently get younger people interested in aerospace careers.

“It’s a chronic challenge,” Lavrakas said. “What we need is sustained engagement and involvement.”