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Some white guys pontificate

November 9, 2010

Tony Velocci, one of the editors over at Aviation Week, writes this week about an executive roundtable in which he and some aerospace and defense executives discussed diversity in the industry. Or maybe more appropriately, the lack thereof.
It is a question worth pondering as one surveys the makeup of the industry as a whole: mostly Caucasian men, with nearly a third of the total workforce 50 to 59 years old. Among larger contractors, about 40% of all employees, many of them involved in major defense programs, will be eligible for retirement within several years.
Of course that's the same spin on soon to retire engineers we keep hearing every month or so. And it appears to be total bunk. I'm pretty sure the 60 year olds I'm working with will keep working long past when they are eligible for medicare, which tends to be the defining measure for when people retire around here. But clearly they aren't getting real good data when they throw out predictions like that. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about Gen X in the workplace: stuck in the middle. Frustrated Gen Xers waiting for Boomers to retire and dealing with "entitled" young millenials in the workforce.
But is it really like that? Yes it seems like there's a lot of old guys hanging on, but at the same time most of my management chain are either Xers or at most on the young side of Boomers. And I don't see too many people here counting down the days until retirement. We all know the recession destroyed a lot of people's portfolios so I'm sympathetic that people need to work longer and save more. While most commenters on Velocci's story predictably said things like "this isn't even an issue" or "this is a silly story" a few had insightful comments on the aerospace industry. Bill Sweetman, another Aviation Week writer, had this to say:
Part of the problem with attracting "the best and brightest" to a mature industry is that you are competing with the new and trendy. Aeronautics and space were in that position once – think of the 1950s and 1960s in southern California – but the bloom went off the rose with the 1970s layoffs, and since then the hot tickets have been IT, biomedical engineering, and robotics.
You do have to wade back in and compete. And indeed to some extent, the problems we see in aerospace might be of its own making, along with its customers. See my post today: what is exciting about 25-year procurement cycles? You become an engineer to make things, not support the tenth analysis of alternatives that may (this time) lead to an RFI, before the customer takes his ball and goes home.
It's fast-cycle companies that are attracting the talent (Scaled, SpaceX, Insitu, iRobot, Aurora, to name a few). But it is still industry giants that have most of the money.
And he's right. It's hard to tell people what I do because when you think engineering you think something really hands on and awesome. Many of my classmates have leapt at the opportunity to use me as a contact to get in at my company. But then they talk about the lab where they are currently working, happily often, and sometimes I think they should stay. Or another commenter, who points out the industry is still as appealing as anything else:
But since graduation, I've applied to countless jobs across the industry with no response. After nine months of searching I eventually went back to graduate school to try and improve my chances and keep my skills sharp, but so far it's only resulted in a single phone interview. I'm not alone, either – some of my friends have sent out over a hundred applications with no success, and my graduate classes are filled with people who gave up for the time being on getting into the aerospace industry and went back to school. I hear stories at job fairs and company presentations of hiring managers that are swamped with hundreds of applications for each entry position, and the booths of companies like Lockheed and Boeing often have lines just as long as those at Apple and Google.
So young people are still trying to get in at these companies, and in high numbers. And does the defense industry want to rebrand anyways? I am reminded of an old Admiral who didn't want too many days off because "the military doesn't get those days off." And the military in this case was also the customer. Or as Mr. Velocci asked,
Companies like Apple and Google are magnets for young people, but can you imagine any of the 20 largest companies trying to duplicate the work environment that exists in those iconic enterprises? Probably not. You do not want your culture to look too different from that of your customer, one senior executive observed.
But even the dismissive posts, the ones that think this topic is silly, that you just hire a consultant and the consultant will tell you how to fix your problem. They have actually managed to nail it on its head. It's an employer's market right now. And if a company can't get young people/minorities/women/ewoks it's probably because they're not really trying. And maybe that's what disappoints me the most. Not that engineers continue to tend to be mostly white males, but that nobody cares. That the people with the money and the authority to make a difference choose not to, again and again.
One Comment leave one →
  1. November 13, 2010 1:04 am

    That pic looks like a panel meeting I recently attended. I was the only woman PhD. Shocking, I know. There wasn't as much pontification as I expected. It was more back-patting than anything. Lots of blithering about zero-sum pissing money games, and how they feel the need to pass on their acquired knowledge to the next generation of d00dz. It's the d00d form of immortality. And if there aren't younger d00dz to pass all this basic knowledge to, the old d00dz will die at their desks because their retirement accts took a $400k hit. Throughout the meeting, I kept thinking about how everything is so inbred, and that *real* focus isn't about the Trainees or passing on knowledge… it's about THEM THEM THEM, their "legacy" of work based on longevity at their desks, not quality, not impact, not utility. It's the knowledge that the d00d existed in the job, not the knowledge he contributed as part of his job. They are such small fish in small ponds, it's amazing to me that they think they have a legacy of some sort with papers no one cites outside their buddy group, no big inventions, no popular methods. They are regurgitating tech from the 80s, and are completely oblivious to any advances made in other disciplines. I chimed in a few times with info that is common knowledge in larger fields, and the d00dz repeatedly asked me to repeat what I said or write down sources for my info (BigKahunaName, DoDadInventor, ZillionCitationPaper, PopularMethod). They wanted to know if anyone had summarized the advances into a review article or book. No, no one has grabbed a spoon for personal d00d feedings. They kept telling me that review articles are sorely needed. For who? THEM, of course. The d00dz who are too clueless to look shit up themselves, who won't network with people other than their buddies. When they talked about rebranding, I turned my ears off.jc

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