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Where Has All The Aerospace Talent Gone? And How Can We Get It Back?

Deb Westphal
December 16, 2014

Aerospace & DefenseToday’s organizations are grappling with complex problems in a world of accelerating change. Aerospace and Defense (A&D) organizations in particular – and the people who work there – must cope with the extra complexity of keeping up with shifts in international security and rapid advances in technology. At the same time, like any other company, A&D organizations must continuously find ways to differentiate themselves from their competition and meet the evolving needs of their customers. 


Unfortunately, over the last decade, evidence suggests that even as the industry has strived to stay competitive with its customers, A&D as a whole has fallen behind in tending to one of its own most valuable resources: its people.


As a result, the industry is facing a crisis of human capital.


Technically Trained Talent Drawn to More Glamorous Firms


Today’s top technical talent is not lining up for jobs with A&D companies. Instead, technically trained workers are taking their talents to the likes of Google, Apple, Twitter, and clean energy producers. A&D businesses and related government agencies – once known as dynamic bastions of engineering geniuses, rocket scientists, and developers of “James Bond-style” tech gadgets – are out. Glamorous, cutting edge firms are in.


Why? Because in the last decade, A&D giants have allowed their organizational dynamics to languish against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Seeming to stand still in time, these businesses and agencies have become vast, hierarchic bureaucracies with aging workforces and mounting legacy costs.  Not exactly the kind of place likely to attract the best and brightest – especially when competing with firms like the ones mentioned above.


What do the best attracters of today’s technical talent have that A&D entities don’t? While you could argue they are more prestigious and impressive – even “sexier” – these are elusive qualities. What specifically makes them more appealing? It all boils down to one word: agility.


Organizational Agility Helps Attract and Retain Talent


From a human capital perspective, agility means more than staffing to satisfy the changing demands of an organization’s customers. 


Agility is also about creating an environment in which people love coming to work, give their best every day, and feel empowered to champion and carry ideas to fruition. It is about creating an environment in which leadership does not dictate every initiative, but instead is primarily concerned with determining and promoting an organization-wide vision and empowering each employee to fulfill it as he or she sees fit. 


The ever-changing demands of the A&D market – as well as the constant churn of technological innovation and obsolescence – require a workforce that is adaptive to new challenges and opportunities. But the organizational dynamics must create and support this agility.


There are no step-by-step instructions for becoming an agile organization, particularly when existing dynamics and processes are deep-rooted and engrained. Instead, only through radical transformation can an organization’s culture truly shift.


And only then will today’s – and tomorrow’s – best and brightest talent be eager to play a central role in the future of the Aerospace and Defense industry.


Becoming an Agile Organization


A&D firms and agencies must turn a new leaf. They must: 


  • Ease bureaucracy and needless levels of approval by reducing hierarchy and flattening the organization.

  • Overcome bias by challenging old notions of what Aerospace and Defense is; create an exciting vision for a future that incorporates the explosion of technology and the blurring of boundaries surrounding both customer and capability.

  • Develop a robust leadership pipeline and fill it with the right people.  Identify leaders by focusing more on attributes than skills.  Celebrate diverse qualities like the ability to: challenge assumptions; sense, probe, and identify problems; imagine; collaborate in real-time; be culturally intuitive; take a multidisciplinary approach; engage in anticipatory risk-taking.

  • Appeal to today’s globally conscious talent pool by embracing “sexier” practices like campaigns for green energy and social responsibility.

  • Build competence in the face of rapid change by encouraging a culture of innovation that embraces ongoing change.

In short, A&D leaders must acknowledge and accept that tomorrow’s A&D is not – and cannot be – their father’s A&D.


The underlying truth is that the world is changing at an acceleratingly rapid pace.  A holistic, multi-disciplined approach to understanding, planning, and adapting to the future – across all aspects of a business – is key to any organization’s ongoing success in the face of such change.


It is time A&D leaders rethink and transform their industry. They can start by transforming the workforce to attract the best and brightest. And the rest will follow.

Deb Westphal

Deb Westphal

Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.

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