Workforce challenges a drag on aviation, aerospace industries

Aviation and aerospace sector leaders say their industries can continue to grow in Indiana, but recruiting and training enough talented workers remain vexing challenges for companies that seem otherwise poised for further expansion.

Some of Indiana’s largest players in that space—from Rolls-Royce to Raytheon to Alcoa to Republic Airways Holdings—said Thursday that a key challenge is making aerospace and aviation a “cool” career when marketing it to recent college graduates who are more interested in major technology firms like Apple or Google.

“We need to make sure we advertise the things we do in our aerospace or aviation companies,” said Freddie Sarhan, vice president of Indianapolis-based Praxair Surface Technologies. “They are cool. They are high-tech. They are breakthrough. Most of our companies are business-to-business. We don’t market these skill sets to the general population. You need to speak the same language.”

Executives from several major companies in the sector discussed those challenges at IBJ's Aviation & Aerospace in Indiana event Thursday morning at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott.

Much of the workforce challenge has been created by a “huge number of people who are retiring from the industry,” said John Wensveen, who leads Purdue's School of Aviation and Transportation Technology. And manycompanies are looking to a younger workforce to step in behind them.

“We don’t necessarily have a group of individuals coming from behind,” Wensveen said. The big challenge for the industry is [creating] a talent pipeline knowing that the industry is evolving, continues to grow, and there are more skills and new forms of technology that people have to adapt to."

It’s difficult to tally exactly how many people work in aviation and aerospace in the state, said Ryan Metzing, director of the Indiana Aerospace & Defense Council, but the estimate is between 50,000 and 60,000.

State officials are targeting the aviation and aerospace industry for future investment. Recently announced corporate initiatives include a $600 million investment to modernize Rolls-Royce facilities in Indianapolis, Alcoa's $100 million advanced engine parts facility in La Porte, and Raytheon’s plans to add 250 jobs at its facility in Indianapolis.

Some companies are attacking the workforce challenge by creating new or deeper relationships with higher education.

Rolls-Royce announced Thursday it would create a $33 million research and development partnership with Purdue University. Republic Airways also is working with Purdue on a program to encourage even younger students in high school and elementary school to consider careers in aviation.

Matt Koscal, vice president of human resources for Republic Airways, said growing the talent pool is a major issue for his company. It's currently suffering a pilot shortage.

“We need to make aviation passionate and interesting again to the young generation,” Koscal said. “We’ve got to make our organizations more relevant.”

Jacques Vanier, Alcoa's president of forgings and extrusions, warned not to underestimate the importance of maintenance workers and technicians. He praised Ivy Tech Community College and said its programs in the careers were critical to his business.

Bolstering vocational training has been one of Gov. Mike Pence’s focuses, and he noted on Thursday that the state has increased funding for vocational training by $50 million.

Highly skilled engineers are important, but “we need the people who can keep the equipment running, ensure it’s well maintained, and ensure we’re producing a high-quality product every time," Varnier said.

Wensveen said about 90 percent of Purdue graduates in related programs have multiple job offers, and the other 10 percent are placed within six months of graduating. The challenge is educating workers fast enough and equipping them with skills that companies need.

“Technology is evolving quickly but the academic side of things doesn’t evolve as quickly,” Wensveen said. “The problem we have right now is there’s a huge gap between industry and the academic arena. How do we figure out ways to accelerate the learning experience? How do you take a typical four-year degree and make it a three-year degree?”

Different skills are needed compared with what was expected of employees even five or 10 years ago, Wensveen said.

"It’s diplomacy, it’s politics, it’s communications,” Wensveen said. “There also are the technical skills and being able to evolve with technology and invent with technology. It’s hands-on, project-based learning."

Meanwhile, he said, the potential workforce has changed, too.

“It’s a different individual that has higher expectations than ever before,” Wensveen said. "They’re more independent than ever before."


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