Interviews Tech Updates

Engineering a solution

Recent discussions within the satellite communications industry seem to indicate a shortfall of satcom engineers globally. We asked industry experts working in different sectors for their views on the topic and what measures were being adopted at various levels to tackle the global shortage of engineering talent.

A recent discussion within the satellite communications industry has been the shortage of satcom engineers. Deloitte shared that in the United States, engineers between the ages of 20 and 30 comprise just 16% of the workforce, whereas 57% are aged over 40. Similarly, by 2040, Australia is projected to be short of engineers by a count of approximately 200,000, which is expected to affect the country’s infrastructure, energy sector and economy. SatellitePro spoke with industry experts to hear their views on the shortage and potential strategies for reintroducing interest and inviting applicants, implemented by both their companies and the region.

Challenges in Space Industry Talent Recruitment

Elizebeth Varghese, Principal & People in Space Leader, Deloitte

Over the past five to ten years, significant growth and capital investment in the space ecosystem have occurred. However, the availability of talent has not increased at a proportional rate. Aerospace engineers, especially software development engineers, have sought opportunities outside of space technology due to factors such as strong labour market competition from tech giants. Software engineering is in high demand across all segments of the value chain, making it particularly challenging for us in the space industry.

There is a prevailing perception that the space industry is challenging to penetrate, which is further enhanced by its depiction as somewhat ‘mystical’ or ‘otherworldly’. Engineers with technical skills are deterred from applying due to their non-space backgrounds. Those trained overseas face visa-related restrictions and migration barriers to entering the industry. There is also competition for engineering talent by non-engineering sectors, including financial services and consulting. Consequently, these restricts the recruitment pool, since fewer qualified applicants perceive they can apply.

In the United States, the space industry currently has thousands of job openings and a limited workforce to occupy them. The rapid expansion of space start-ups further strains the talent pool available. Company leaders and recruitment managers are adopting new strategies to overcome these challenges, including modifying recruitment techniques, improving facilities, promoting remote work opportunities, and demonstrating flexibility by considering candidates from outside the industry as well.

Several companies have adopted a candidate-centric hiring process. Organisations are focusing on the employee brand and the value proposition of working in space to attract candidates. Many companies are also being intentionally location-agnostic when sourcing. They are hiring where the talent is rather than the other way around. Learning how to manage a decentralised workforce and a larger remote team has taken some effort, but it is yielding positive results.

Recruiters are also focused on growing the pipeline and bringing new people into the industry by emphasising adjacent skills. In today’s job market, companies no longer have the luxury of screening out candidates. If someone lacks a specific skill or experience but checked four out of the five boxes, managers are encouraged to screen them in. If the candidate demonstrates the ability to learn and grow, it will pay off dividends because the company invests in that person.

Certain companies have seen more success by leveraging compensation – after becoming publicly traded via a special purpose acquisition company merger, one company used equity as a hiring incentive. As tuition costs and student debt have skyrocketed, companies are also enticing students with scholarships, paid internships, and a student loan repayment programme.

Several companies are also investing heavily in their internship programme and encourage an interest in STEM from an early age by sponsoring high school robotics teams and STEM programming with the National 4-H organisation.

In the UK, most people join the space sector at the start of their careers. About half (47%) join as new graduates and over three-quarters (77%) have joined by the age of 35. Approximately 6.1m people (19% of the UK workforce) hold engineering and technology occupations, with 25% of all job postings in the UK being for engineering roles. Demand for engineers is predicted to grow faster than that for other occupations. Meanwhile, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics has estimated that there will be more than 125,000 engineering openings on average annually through 2030.

In the past, students in the Middle East experienced limited career opportunities for postdoc graduates of physics and mathematics outside of academia and teaching. As a result, students opted for other disciplines outside of space. To solve this lack of Emirati planetary scientists, the Emirates Mars Mission reskilled engineers to become apprentice scientists in preparation for the Hope. They partnered with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Middle Eastern countries seek to establish a Middle East-wide space agency, like Europe and Africa. The region is heavily investing in their educational systems to create a workforce with the capability to build satellite technologies. For example, since 2018, Bahrain has been training a ‘space team’ focused on teaching younger generations about satellite technologies.

Es’hailSat Invests in Future Talent for Satellite Engineering

Hamad Al Mannai, Vice President – Commercial, Es’hailSat

The satellite industry has always struggled to find the right talented young engineers to build highly advanced technology solutions for global customers and applications. There continues to be a shortage of talent in the industry, and this is now true across most of the globe. Es’hailSat has been investing in education for many years now, so we can groom the young workforce and help build our own technology for the future.

Es’hailSat conducts outreach programmes with universities and schools to educate and promote satellite engineering among students. We have outsourced application development to universities where senior students work in a group and with supervision from our engineering team to develop and enhance solutions for certain parts of our teleport operations. As an example, Es’hailSat is working with Qatar University under the Academia-Industry Cooperation programme on smart manufacturing for projects such as ‘SkyCubesNet: A Ka-Band Cubesat-Based Communications Infrastructure for Smart Cities of the Future’. This is just one part of our initiative to provide guidance and advice to the CubeSat teams at the university and support their development.

All these initiatives nurture talent, broaden their horizons and improve the skill set of the youth in the field of satellite engineering for generations to come. Within Qatar, we have undertaken many such initiatives with the younger generation across various age groups. Ultimately, these are key to fulfilling our vision of being a world-class satellite operator and service provider that effectively contributes to the success of Qatar’s National Visions 2030 by supporting young students to become the driving force behind the diversifying economy.

The Impact of a ‘Future Classroom’

Martin Coleman, Advisory Board Member, Satcoms Innovation Group (SIG)

Having been involved with a local school in the UK and, in particular, helping with a new ‘Future Classroom’ concept, has been a revelation from the get-go. The spin-off? The school now has a steady stream of students each year opting to study math, engineering and scientific subjects, with a view to a career in the aerospace industry. Getting school students interested in this way has been my specific area of interest and action to help fill the skills gap facing most industries.

The limited choice of currently qualified students from the university to suit any industry begins by ensuring students have better career advice. This requires a combination of educational initiatives, engaging activities and exposure to real-world applications – the Future Classroom does exactly this. The most interesting change of focus in our school is STEAM, adding the Arts to into the STEM equation. There are several strategies to foster that interest.

Hands-on activities, such as workshops, science fairs and engineering competitions, where students can build and experiment with simple rockets, model satellites or other aerospace-related projects. These practical experiences can help them see the real-world applications of theoretical concepts. We also invite professionals working in these industries to share their experiences with students and get them to be regular visitors. Field trips to aerospace companies, research centres and space museums can inspire and highlight what they can achieve with a career in these fields. Also beneficial are STEAM clubs in schools that focus on engineering and space sciences. These clubs can conduct regular meetings and plan activities related to space exploration. Interactive learning tools and virtual reality experiences that allow students to virtually visit space missions or understand the mechanics of spacecraft can make complex concepts more accessible and exciting; these are already a part of the Future Classroom.

Celebrating significant space milestones or achievements, like satellite launches, spacewalks or rover missions, can be educational opportunities and spark curiosity among students. Integrating project-based learning into the curriculum, where students work open-ended engineering challenges related to space and aerospace, encourages creativity, problem-solving and collaboration.

Also beneficial are mentors from the space and aerospace industries, who can provide students with guidance, career insights and motivation to pursue a similar path. Actively encouraging and supporting female and minority students can promote diversity in the space and aerospace industries. Movies, documentaries, books and other popular media that highlight space exploration and aerospace achievements can make these subjects more relatable. Students are also encouraged to participate in national and international space and engineering competitions.

Offering scholarships and grants for students interested in space and aerospace fields can support their educational journey. Giving motivated students real-world exposure, through collaborations with aerospace companies and research institutions that offer internships, apprenticeships, or summer programmes, can solidify their interest in pursuing a career in these industries.

Talent Acquisition Challenges in Satellite Industry

Helen Weedon, Managing Director, Satcoms Innovation Group (SIG)

The theme of talent acquisition has come up regularly at our recent workshops. In fact, earlier this year, I asked participants to note the single biggest challenge they are facing, and this was top for many. This has been a concern for a number of years. I remember it being a discussion topic very early on in my time working with the Satcoms Innovation Group.

One topic we discussed on a panel at CABSAT was the lack of diversity in the satellite industry and that extends to diversity in age as well as many other factors. That said, I’m aware that there are a great many activities underway across the world to encourage more children into STEM subjects. There are also a growing number of industry-specific initiatives, but we certainly need more.

In the UK, there has been a rise in students taking engineering courses over the past couple of years, so maybe we are starting to see the impact of some of the activities that will eventually lead to more engineers leaving university and entering the world of work. However, the rise in students opting for computer sciences is even higher at almost 50%. Given the cool factor of companies like Apple and Google, that is hardly surprising. Perhaps the satellite industry needs to do more to show that it is just as exciting, if not even more so. How we get there likely will involve input from across the industry and collaboration with some of those initiatives already in place.

Addressing Engineer Shortages: Insights from Odense

Joakim Espeland, CEO, Quadsat

As a small company based in Odense, it is hard to make a sound judgment on whether the shortage of engineers is true or not. There is some expertise that it is harder to find than others. Whether that is due to our location or company size is not something we have done research on.

As an example, for Quadsat, it is hard to get RF competencies. However, if we were based in Aalborg, it might be easier to get RF but harder to get robotics. Overall, I would expect that there are more engineers educated per semester, together with a growing trend for people to get more educated. Of course, there are also many more tech companies that might be equally exciting to young engineers as a career in space.

However, finding people with existing satellite or space experience that are familiar with emerging technologies, like AI, is probably difficult. Satellite companies may be more successful considering upskilling current employees on emerging technology or educating candidates with the right skillsets on space and satellite. Another thing that is important to keep in mind is that the newly educated workforce today is much more concerned about purpose and the direction of the company than building a traditional career and job security.

Atheras Analytics: Navigating Satellite Network Engineering

Charilaos Kourogiorgas, Technical Director, Atheras Analytics

Atheras Analytics uses AI to design and operate Ka-band and Q/V-band satellite networks. The core engineering competencies that we seek are software engineering, machine-learning engineering and satcom engineering. In practice, however, we find that our engineers are often proficient in more than just their core competency.

We operate as a virtual company, so we’re flexible on location. However, from a practical perspective, the time zone should be reasonably aligned with the core team in Europe.

We primarily use LinkedIn for our recruitment campaigns, which seems to work well for software and machine-learning engineering roles but attracts fewer (around 50% fewer) applications for the satcom engineering roles. As a start-up company, we can’t provide the salaries that some of the larger, more established satellite companies are able to offer, but we hope that we compensate for that through our employee share option scheme, extremely dynamic and fast-learning work environment and opportunities for early advancement and responsibilities. Perhaps in recognition of that, most of the applications we receive for the satcom roles are from younger engineers who are keen to take advantage of these opportunities, while applications from more senior engineers are fewer.

We have had excellent success with the UK Space Agency Space Placement in INdustry (SPIN) programme. In the last two years, we have taken on two machine-learning SPIN interns, both of whom were subsequently offered, and accepted, permanent positions with the company. We have also benefitted from the UK Visa Sponsorship Scheme, which was a fairly straightforward process and has enabled us to directly employ a specialist non-UK satcom engineer in the UK.

Through a combination of all of the above (and a lot of persistence!), we have managed to assemble a world-class engineering team, which we continue to grow.

Yahsat Empowering UAE’s Space Future

Mohamed Al Ali, A/EVP of Human Capital, Yahsat

The Middle East, especially the UAE, is witnessing tremendous growth in its space and satellite sector. The UAE’s driving efforts to venture into the global space economy sector has triggered strong interest from younger generations. One of the key messages that our leadership is keen to convey to the youth, not only in the UAE, but also in the entire region, is that it is about time for Arabs to resume their contributions to the advancement of the planet. This is why the UAE Mars Probe was named ‘Hope’. The outcome afterwards has been impressive and the number of young Emiratis flocking to the sector is on the rise, as the successes of the UAE National Space Programme in a remarkably short span of time are inspiring future generations to pursue exciting opportunities in the satellite communications industry. There is no dearth of interest or talent, but the challenge is how to harness latent potential to boost innovation and productivity.

While the situation may vary from one region to the other, it is a fact that phenomenal growth of the satcom sector has driven demand to exceed supply recently. For instance, 2022 was a record year for the space sector, according to a Deloitte study, with 186 successful rocket launches (41 more than in 2021), signalling a rapid transformation of the space sector.

Yahsat has been committed from the very beginning to attracting and nurturing young engineers and specialists in this sector. We are one of the key drivers of the UAE’s space ambitions and its space economy, with our own space programme continuously identifying and training homegrown talent. As the UAE transitions to a knowledge-based economy, the space sector will be increasingly important in accelerating the country’s economic, scientific and social development. We expect the domestic space sector to flourish and develop further, fostered by continued investments in in-country research, technology and infrastructure development.

We believe that a self-sustaining economy bolstered by local talent and strong learning and career development programmes are vital for both Yahsat’s and the UAE’s long-term success in the satellite communications sector. In this regard, we are working closely with the government to support the National Space Programme for further progress and growth.

Yahsat attaches high priority to developing future generations of Emirati space and satellite engineers. In line with our sustainability goal, ‘Investing in People’, we are involved in several initiatives to build Emirati youth’s knowledge and STEM skills. In 2017, we founded the Yahsat Space Lab, besides launching a master’s programme in advancing space systems engineering in partnership with Masdar Institute and Orbital ATK.

In 2020, Yahsat partnered with Khalifa University and the UAESA to establish a lab that will be a hub for manufacturing and designing small satellites. The Yahsat Space Lab is part of the Khalifa University Centre for Space Technology and Innovation and is the UAE’s first space systems laboratory with assembly, integration and verification facilities to build miniature satellites called CubeSats. Students of Space System and Technology at Khalifa University learn and gain experience in the entire CubeSat lifecycle from design to development, mentored by Yahsat engineers.

In addition, we have career enhancement programmes such as GROW and Yahsat Youth Council to train space leaders of tomorrow, while providing on-the-job training and interaction opportunities for new Emirati trainees and employees through internships, satellite programmes and job site visits.

The Programme Management Office for our latest satellite, Thuraya 4-NGS, comprises young Emirati engineers who are heavily involved in its development and launch. The Middle East’s first Flight Dynamics engineer, Fatma Al Yammahi, is a key member of our Technology team. Abdullah Essa Sharif, who joined us after a stint at Yahsat Space Lab, is now part of the UAE’s ambitious Multiple Asteroid Exploration mission. Aida Al Yaaqoubi, Senior Engineer of Spacecraft Analysis, was handpicked by the UAE Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology to represent the country in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Young Professionals Programme. She was also elected as the 2022 IEC Young Professional Leader for Asia and the Middle East. They are stellar examples of our rising stars with many more yet to come.