Industry, Academia Must Break Down Silos to Develop Future Workforce

By Kathryn B. Creedy

15 minute read

  • Education reform needed to develop interdisciplinary talent
  • Corporations and educators must remove silos
  • Companies already taking interdisciplinary approach to OJT for better outcomes
  • Changing curriculum is massive challenge
  • Traditional college degree or certification focus?
  • Wholistic approach needed to solve technical, social and economic issues raised by deployment of emerging technology
  • STEM programs not working
  • AR/VR not only speeds training but enables faster manufacturing and repair

Academia and corporations must break down silos because the future workforce will have to know how all facets of an aircraft work from design to testing, panelists said during the recent Vertical Flight Society Future Vertical Workforce Panel. Without that, they said, advanced air mobility will not achieve goals as rapidly as industry wants and, likely, neither will traditional aviation/aerospace.

Interestingly, this tallies with thoughts from aviation maintenance technician educators and MRO experts on how that discipline must change to accommodate emerging technology. They see the creation of super technicians that can work across disciplines, combining knowledge and skills related to electrics, systems and general maintenance, repair and overhaul. The panel also confirmed the need for continuous education throughout careers to accommodate technology changes.

Source: Uriel Soberanes, Unsplash

Panelists also discussed technology not only in design and execution but in knowledge transfer between the experienced workforces and new graduates, creating faster on-the-job workforce training and enabling repair of aircraft in remote areas by tapping resources they’ve never had before. As suggested in a previous article, this will be a requirement for advanced air mobility.

The panel, included representatives from the US Army, MIT, Penn State, Sikorsky, Boeing and PTC and comes at a time when both industry and academia are questioning how to educate the future workforce. For instance, Career and Technical Education (CTE) is being brought to bear to create career paths to local aviation and manufacturing jobs as part of a strategy to leverage corporate higher education benefits to achieve a college degree.

“We need the imagination, creativity and humility to address safety problems,” Penn State’s Amy Pritchett said. “We need the future engineering workforce to balance the ambition to push the envelope to bring new technology and systems to bear with the ability to imagine what can go wrong.”

Re-examing how educators educate comes at a time when corporations such as Apple, Google and IBM have eliminated the requirement of a four-year degree from some of their job descriptions. Last year, the government shifted its hiring practices to give job applicant’s skills priority over a college degree.

This is in line with suggestions education needs to radically pivot.

“Skills-based credentials focus attention on what a job applicant can do rather than the degree they’ve earned or where they went to school,” said Author and Education Columnist Jeff Selingo, recommending how colleges can change. “We should use the reshaped economy that will emerge from this crisis to let go of our allegiance to the traditional college degree as a signal of job preparedness. “Short courses offer opportunities for colleges to create new kinds of micro-credentials, including certificates, that can help reduce friction in the job market in two key ways. First, micro-credentials are a stronger signal to employers that an applicant has mastered a specific skill, particularly digital skills. Second, micro-credentials can stack on top of one another to eventually allow students to earn a traditional degree over time. Skills — including soft skills, such as communication, problem solving and teamwork — should be the coin of the realm in hiring rather than majors or the name brand of a school.”

David Deming, professor of public policy, Harvard University, and faculty director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, suggests pairing colleges and universities with community colleges to respond to pandemic laoyoffs and the need to retrain and reskill workers. He also said lessons learned from the Great Recession shows for-profit colleges did not deliver the results for which students were hoping and suggest a new approach is needed in developing training for skills needed immediately in the community.

“We need to convince our students the measure of success is no longer finding the one right answer,” said Pritchett. “Success is now measured on whether or not they can solve the big and difficult questions which don’t have one answer.”

How Academia Must Change

Source: Guilherme Stecanella, Unsplash

Academia also worries they must train tomorrow’s workforce for jobs we don’t even know about. In fact, the Institute for the Future estimates 85% of jobs today’s students will have by 2030 don’t exist yet. It’s 2018 study – Emerging Technologies’ Impact on Society & Work in 2030 – is a clarion call to rethink education. 

Still today’s challenges were what the VFS panel discussion was all about and the issues raised are equally important. One such problem occurs at the intersection of computing and engineering, said MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Nancy Leveson,

“We see the complexity of design and systems increasing exponentially,” she said, adding much of the issue relates to software development and design. “Systems engineering is now different than what students have been taught. For instance, safety engineers are woefully inadequate almost to be useless because the curriculum was created 60- to 70-years ago. It can’t handle software or human factors beyond the trivial and it can’t handle the complexity of the systems we have today. So many designs are completed without the input from a safety group. The design is then analyzed for safety after the fact but how do you analyze the safety of something if you don’t know much about the subject matter involved?”

Indeed, antiquated requirements was exactly the problem faced by aviation technician educators who now have a new tool trading prescriptive regulatory requirements for competency-based training. Whether that holds lessons for academia is the question.

Leveson advised an interdisciplinary approach in which each separate group – design, engineering and safety – is integrated at the front end with the design and development group. Indeed, manufacturing has long had this approach, integrating ease of repair and accessibility into the design mandate.

Source: Christina Wocintechchat via Unsplash

“We can’t leave software engineering education to the computer science department because they won’t learn anything about other engineering disciplines,” she said. “The problem we are seeing is managing complex, software-intensive projects and in operating systems with lots of software. We need to develop software engineering courses using engineering problems. We need to combine these disciplines into the basic aerospace engineering education.”

“Problems are not solved with only one perspective. We need all kinds of perspectives if we are to solve our problems,” said MIT’s Leveson

Leveson indicated academia needs to increase systems engineering education since the complexity of each aircraft is going to make that one of the critical subject areas. This is not just about the design of the aircraft itself, she said, but the design of the larger system including the social systems in which aircraft will operate such as air traffic control, collision avoidance in congested urban areas and certification.

Credit: Joby Aviation

“Unless this happens the potential of electric VTOL is limited,” she said, adding MIT’s Engineering Systems Division has integrated many disciplines including social sciences, economics and management into some of its programs. “Problems are not solved with only one perspective. We need all kinds of perspectives if we are to solve our problems. We need to change our education to produce the tools and techniques engineers will use to solve the large system problems.

“I’m working with NASA now to figure out how to implement integration and we don’t have the tools we need,” she continued. “EVTOL is just not going to happen. You can build an aircraft but until you solve issues that prevent these aircraft from crashing into each other and integration into other parts of the system such as airports and how they will interact with general aviation and police/emergency aircraft, we will be held back. General aviation is not going to be able to spend a lot of money on equipment. It is the social problems that will hold us up, not the engineering problems.”

Penn State University Professor & Head of Aerospace Engineering Amy Pritchett agreed. “Design is a matter of trade-offs between disciplines,” she said, adding administrators are constantly looking at how curriculum should be updated, changed and adapted. “We must address, not just engineering and physics but societal needs. We do not want to be siloed not just in academia but across the entire industry which is separated into divisions, disciplines and specializations. We need a broader organizational outlook, and the challenge is for the engineers we produce to be able to manage that. Somewhere along the way we need to convince our students the measure of success is no longer finding the one right answer. Success is now measured on whether or not they can solve the big and difficult questions which don’t have one answer. Rather than computing as a separate topic on the side, they need to understand computing is for the analysis of real time information aboard the aircraft and takes in system design and safety analysis and that it is integral to all our practices.”

She worried the more autonomous the vehicle the less forgiving they will be when things go wrong. She pointed to two accidents in which teams of pilots convinced the aircraft to operate in a way the designers never anticipated.

“We need the imagination, creativity and humility to address safety problems,” Pritchett said. “We need the future engineering workforce to balance the ambition to push the envelope to bring new technology and systems to bear with the ability to imagine what can go wrong.”

Interdisciplinary Approach to OJT

Industry has already adopted an interdisciplinary approach, according to Dr. Mark Robeson, Structures Tech Aera Lead, Technology Development Directors-Aviation US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, Aviation & Missile Center. He explained the on-the-job training (OJT) used to ensure the workforce stays current as technology changes includes new materials in academic venues but also in-house training of skills needed to take ideas from the earliest conception phases right through to flight testing.

Source: Shutterstock

“These cross-area collaborations are particularly important for new engineers to give them better competencies required for the job,” he said. “We expose new engineers to subject matter experts for testing, safety, engineering design and analysis, electrical and mechanical fabrication, all areas critical to flight testing. Even if they are not going to be working in these areas it is critical to give them exposure because it helps them understand the big picture and provides opportunities they can leverage in their own areas of expertise. Engineers who don’t understand the contracting and acquisition side are missing what they need to know to make the whole system work. Our people may come in as technical folks, but they need an entire depth and breadth of knowledge and skills to be successful.”

Sikorsky Director of Innovations Dr. Igor Cherepinsky agreed. “Graduating students have chosen a particular field of study such as aerospace or electrical engineering,” he said. “But they need knowledge across all the domains because a lot of work involves more than one domain. You need knowledge to understand what colleagues are even talking about. You must speak the same language. You may be well versed on one thing, but you must understand how it interacts with adjacent domains and that is the challenge facing today’s graduates.”

Cherepinsky pointed to training programs developed by Sikorsky to address this problem as well as mid-career employees who want to switch disciplines. He indicated those who switch to fluid dynamics, for instance, bring their aerospace design expertise to that discipline.

Sikorsky’s new-hire training shows universities are doing a good job in providing the basic skills and knowledge, but company training adds experience in the entire design, build and test cycle so they understand the entire process before they are put on big programs.

“You have to understand that you can never stop learning,” he added. “You should keep an open mind and continue to learn so you can adapt to new technology. Our training programs are aimed at people in different stages of their careers and we must help them adapt. We also can’t rely on PowerPoints or digital design tools but must develop hands-on programs so employees can understand the entire process from design to test flights and figure out what works and how to improve them.”

Indeed, some in academia and industry have suggested creation of a Transcript for Life that not only includes military service, internships, apprenticeships but the competencies the person has mastered. The Interoperable Learner Record (ILR) would trade courses and majors for listing the specific skills that people have mastered as well as relevant life experiences accumulated.

Changing the Curriculum Not Easy

One of the biggest challenges for academia is changing the curriculum and overhauling instruction methods, Pritchett explained, elevating the importance of working with industry to determine what needs to be done.

“We can’t just add more courses which everyone wants to do,” she said, adding leveraging what students are learning at corporate recruiting events, internships and cooperative programs, sheds light on what to teach. “We have to make hard decisions about the concepts and experiences we can vote into the lifeboats because of credit limits. What students learn [when they interact with industry] determines what courses they take. Students will tell you what they will come to and what they expect because recruiters are defining new curricula we need to develop.”

PTC Federal Aerospace, Defense & Energy Director of Business Transformation David Segal discussed the incorporation of Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), not only in education but as tools for the workforce. His company makes technology to facilitate communication with AR/VR.

“We bring the convergence between digital software and the physical worlds,” he said. “The role of AR/VR is future workforce training will put gaming-like technology in the hands of engineers. It will include the use of devices such as the HoloLens to project an overlay of instructions onto physical objects such as engines to bring real-time training to engineers and technicians. In addition, this same technology can be used for distance learning combining real-time collaboration with experts to provide fixes.”

He explained that it can be used to integrate manufacturing or maintenance tasks with manuals and sensors. It can also be used to guide and educate people on what needs to be done as the task is completed combining two efforts into one. Finally, it can be used in inspections. When damage is detected, the integration will be able to develop the work procedure for repair and project it on to the surface as the repair is happening, significantly shortening repair time.

The technology also addresses the critical brain drain the industry is experiencing and transferring that knowledge to the next generation. “These retired engineers can not only write the manuals but discuss in real time how to perform the procedures and instill best practices,” he said. “Technology can capture their knowledge and practices as they work and that can be streamed to devices for others to use. Engineers and technicians then have access to expert knowledge for guidance and knowledge transfer as they are working. These technology packages can replace current manuals and be connected to computer systems so they can use it as they work.”

Segal shared metrics from GE and Boeing. “Our customers say the ease of learning with AR is significantly simplified,” he said. “A Boeing study showed implementing AR provided 30% faster assembly lines while GE Energy had 33% faster work on wiring control boxes,” he reported. “GE also was 50% faster for assembly, maintenance and repair capability and saw a 30% improvement in knowledge transfer for their workers.”

He also discussed the advantage of using the technology for consultation in remote locations. “With real-time connection, you can stream work instruction and guidance to front-line workers consulting with an expert who can guide them not only verbally but visually on how to perform the operation,” he explained. “They can be connected seamlessly to life-cycle management systems. There are many different applications that are already in use.”  

 Current Outreach Not Working

Pritchett noted with alarm, STEM education is losing girls in middle school and minorities in high school. “What outreach we are doing now is not working,” she said, bluntly. “We describe this education as STEM, schools call it science, but it is really engineering. It is building things. Our nation has a problem attracting enough people to engineering and the science curriculum in middle school is not helping.”

Some outreach, such as the national rocketry challenge is working, but Pritchett is right we face a challenge retaining students in STEM programs. One suggestion pairs those already in the workforce with those in elementary, middle and high school to help them move through their STEM education. Demings suggested also pairing college students with primary, middle and high schools students to keep them interested in STEM and advise them on their next educational steps. Equally important is keeping graduates in aviation/aerospace since they are also being recruited by financial institutions and automakers who want engineers and modelers.

What is needed is understanding of the aviation/aerospace STEM programs already out there, as listed on the Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News website and working with them to keep students on track.

We also need investment in touting the futuristic innovative technologies that put aviation/aerospace on the leading edge of what students see as cool new stuff and keep them away from the siren calls of Silicon Valley and gaming.

Academia and industry are now at a critical crossroads which requires a completely open mind on how to educate the next generation. The panelists eloquently described the problem, but the next step is harder, how to develop and implement the solution. One thing is clear, however, we have no time to waste on defending the status quo.

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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