- This is the first report to investigate how and why people join the UK space sector. It is based on the results of the 2020 Space Census.
- It uses the lens of a three-component model for behavioural change: motivation, capability, and opportunity.
- The two main motivations for joining the space sector (covering 86% of people) are a love of space and a desire to do interesting work.
- People who like space join early, 63% have joined by age 25, while people who want to do interesting work join late, with only 38% joining by that age.
- Interest in space comes from a range of sources, including educational settings like science festivals (42%), schools (24%), and museums (23%), and media like books (36%), TV (30%) and the internet (17%).
- School outreach has a much more limited impact (5%), despite being the focus of a lot of space skills strategies.
- The space sector is very highly qualified. 22% have a bachelor’s, 38% have a master’s, and 30% have a PhD as their highest qualification.
- Apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are less common, with 7% of the workforce holding one as their highest qualification.
- Physics and geophysics (34%) and engineering (31%) are the most common subjects of study.
- Aerospace engineering has more than doubled in popularity. 21% of under 35s studied it, compared to 8% of over 35s.
- Work experience is becoming more common, especially grad schemes and internships, completed by 48% of under 35s compared to 18% of over 35s.
- Most people join the space sector at the start of their career. About half (47%) join as new graduates, and over three quarters (77%) have joined by the age of 35.
- Age 30 is the inflection point for the main motivation for joining the sector. Under 30s like space, while over 30s like interesting work.
- Though there are a range of resources about space sector careers, these are primarily aimed at young people, and there are virtually no resources available for career changers.
This report is the fourth in a series analysing the results of the 2020 Space Census. It explores how and why people join the UK space sector.
Knowing why people want to work in the space sector is important. If we know what influences people’s education and career choices, we can shape curricula, provide targeted opportunities, and reach out to those on the brink of making key career decisions.
Choosing a career is a kind of behaviour change, and so we model it using the three components of the COM-B model for behavioural change 1:
- Capability - ‘I have the skills to do this career’
- Opportunity - ‘I know about this career and am able to pursue it’
- Motivation - ‘I want to do this career’
When we do outreach we are mostly motivating people and getting kids excited about space. We might also do a bit of awareness building, especially when our outreach involves career resources. Dedicated careers events and resources like SpaceCareers.uk are key to awareness, while activities that make the space sector more inclusive support access. Education and training focus on building capability, careers resources focus on building awareness, and outreach focuses on building motivation.
Education and training gives people the skills they need. Some things, like work experience, fall somewhere in between two categories. They show young people the jobs that are available, and they also teach them some skills along the way. Similarly competitions are both a motivator and a capability builder, as is breaking down stereotypes that make people underestimate their skills.
The 2020 Space Census was conducted by the Space Skills Alliance with the Space Growth Partnership's Space Skills Advisory Panel, and supported by the UK Space Agency and UKspace. The initial survey funded by the University of Leicester, and subsequent analysis was funded by the Satellite Applications Catapult.
The survey was conducted via an online form open for 12 weeks from 7th October to 31st December 2020. It comprised approximately 50 questions covering demographic information (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), work information (role, company, salary, etc.) experiences discrimination, and paths into the sector (qualifications, influences, etc.).
We surveyed 1552 people from more than 250 organisations across industry, academia, government, the military, and the non-profit sector. This is approximately 5% of the UK space workforce. More details on our methodology and the characteristics of the dataset can be found in our earlier report.
This report is a follow-on from our previous reports, so some statistics and graphs from them are repeated in this report for convenience.
Motivation: Giving people a reason to join the sector
What motivates people to join the space sector?
Within the space sector, two main motivations drive the vast majority of people: a love of space (42%) and a desire for interesting work (44%).
While superficially these may seem like the same thing, these two groups of people are actually reasonably distinct. People who like space are keen, they seek out the sector and they join it early in their careers, often as soon as they can enter the workplace. Almost two thirds (63%) have joined by age 25, and they are also more likely to have done some kind of work experience in advance of joining. By contrast, people who like interesting work follow the career path that is most interesting to them, and end up in the space sector later on, with only just over a third (38%) having joined by 25.
A recent survey of European students studying space-related degree courses found a similar result. The majority (77%) said they wanted to pursue a career in space because they were “fascinated” by space or thought it would be an “exciting and fun” field to work in (equivalent to liking space), and 62% said they liked “complex things” (equivalent to interesting work), while only 9% said salary was a motivator for pursuing a career in space 2.
Those who are interested in space tend to choose to work in areas like science and engineering which are more closely associated with the sector, and are less likely to be in management, sales, or administration roles. By contrast, those who said that they joined the space sector for interesting work are more likely to be working in computing, management, sales, and administration.
|Role area||Interesting work (%)||Like space (%)||All other (%)|
Other motivations are much less common
Overall just 14% of people picked a different motivation, but this number is higher in specific roles. In particular, 26% of people in administrative roles choose them because they are local, compared to 4% of those in other roles.
Why are people interested in space?
As anyone who has been around children will know, interest in space starts at an early age. Research by LEGO, which has had a space range since the mid-1960s, found that 86% of children aged 8 to 12 say they are interested in space exploration 3. This interest is retained into adulthood; a survey of US adults found that 75% describe themselves as very or moderately interested in space 4.
But this doesn’t fully answer the question. Where does this interest arise from and when?
Interest in space comes from a range of sources
There is no single source of interest in space. When asked what led them into the space sector, respondents cited a wide range of influences including science events, books, TV, the internet, school, museums, and historic moments. A 2020 study of young people in the UK found a similarly broad range as “young people encountered spaceflight through films, media, family, friends and school staff” 5.
Influences are similar for men and women
Influences vary only a little between men and women. Women are more likely to be inspired at school or by a teacher (30% of women vs 21% of men) or at a space camp such as Space School UK (7% vs 3%) while men are more likely to be inspired by the internet (13% vs 19%).
This tallies with previous findings that girls are more prosocial 6 – they care more about the welfare of others – and feel out of place in STEM 7, meaning the influence of teachers and peers can be particularly strong. Space School UK found that when asked which aspects of the school they found most useful, girls were more likely to choose mentoring and the opportunity to socialise and network with others, while boys were more likely to choose workshops and lectures 8. Similarly, a study of aviation careers found that girls placed greater importance on whether a job would ‘make a difference’ or ‘have an impact’ (55% of girls vs 36% of boys) 9.
Influences vary by age
The ‘Apollo effect’ of young people being inspired into STEM by the Moon landings is well documented 1011, and we see evidence of it in the Census data too. 50% of those in their early 60s, who would have been in their early teens during the Apollo missions, said that ‘historic events’ were what influenced them to join the space sector, compared to 30% for those in their 30s or 40s.
For 18-24 year-olds, who would have been in their teens for Tim Peake’s launch, that figure has increased to 38%, not as high as for Apollo, but an increase nonetheless. This result aligns with the impact assessment conducted after Tim Peake’s Principia mission, which found that the public felt more informed about careers in space following the mission, with a particular impact on secondary school students 12.
Younger respondents (under 35) cited more influences on average than older ones (3 vs 2). This may be because for them those influences were more recent and therefore easier to recall, but it is also likely to be an indication of the increasing cultural presence of space in recent years.
The youngest age bracket (18-24 year-olds) have the broadest mix of influences. They have access to new forms of media like the internet (which 50% say was an influence), but they are also more likely than their predecessors to cite more traditional influences like events (58%), books (43%), television (42%), school (40%), and museums (39%).
Space is experiencing a cultural renaissance
In the last 15 years there has been regular news coverage of historic flights like Tim Peake’s launch (2015), Space X’s Crewed Dragon (2020), the suborbital flights of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin (2021), and the first launch from the UK (2023), increased government interest and investment in space, including the creation of the UK Space Agency (2010) and the passing of the Space Industry Act (2018), and a greater representation of space in popular culture, with a resurgence of both existing franchises like Star Trek (which currently has five active shows) and of new ones like The Expanse (2015–2021).
These media depictions can have an impact well beyond what traditional outreach can achieve. In the 1970s, Nichelle Nichols (who played a character in Star Trek) was featured in NASA recruitment films, helping to recruit 8,000 people to the space agency 13. In 1986, the success of Top Gun, which stars Tom Cruise as a US Navy pilot, led to a 8% increase in the Navy’s recruitment rates the following year 14. More recently a ‘Brian Cox effect’, caused by his frequent television appearances since 2010, is reported to have increased applications to university physics courses by 52% 15, and a 2022 Inmarsat report found that 10% of people globally associate space with Star Wars 16.
Video games are also a small but important media format to consider. Though the Census did not ask specifically about them, Kerbal Space Programme, a 2011 game in which players create and manage their own space program and spacecraft, was mentioned as a write-in answer by five people, and three others mentioned other video games. NASA has supported the development of Kerbal Space Programme, and Mars Horizon, a similar game launched in 2020, was developed with support from ESA.
While outreach events and resources for schools are clearly important, books, television, and other media have received far less focus in the sector’s outreach strategy and funding. The UK Space Agency’s Education, Skills and Outreach Strategy lists its objective as supporting the development of career information, encouraging the teaching of space in schools, and developing outreach programmes. It contains no mention of supporting the development of books, TV shows, or films 17.
Outreach has a more limited effect
In addition to an increased cultural focus on space, there has been a concerted outreach effort by the government and by science and engineering bodies to encourage more young people into STEM. However, outreach appears to have little influence on why people join the space sector. Only 5% of people said that outreach at a school level (for example an inspirational talk from someone working in the space sector) influenced them to go into the space industry. Outreach at university appears to be slightly more successful, influencing 10% of people, though these students may already have had plans to enter the space sector.
Space camps also have relatively small impact, with just 4% of respondents citing them as an influence. This is likely because space camp attendees are typically already interested in space. Despite this, the popularity of this type of outreach has increased, with the number of space camps in the UK having grown from one in 1989 to ten in 2022, and as noted above, they are particularly helpful for girls.
Space is increasingly used in the curriculum
The UK Space Agency’s education strategy focuses on introducing more space content to the curriculum, both as a way to encourage young people into the space sector, and to inspire them about science and technology more generally.
The 2015 Principia education campaign reached an estimated 1.6 million young people or 15% of all school children in the UK 12. Though it is still too early to assess the full impact of these programmes, school and teachers are cited by ~40% of 18-24 year-olds in the census compared to 30% of 25-34 year-olds and 26% of 35-44 year-olds.
Space is one of the most popular topics in school. A 2000 study found that space was the one topic that generated universal enthusiasm in school students 18, and 53% of physics undergraduates cite astrophysics as a significant reason for being attracted to the subject 19.
There is, however, a risk of overdoing space in the curriculum. A 2020 study on how young people encounter space found that:
For teachers and curriculum developers, there is evidence that human spaceflight is a context for science that can engage young people, but these interests do not always correspond to curriculum content, and there is a risk of resisting engagement where learning activities associated with human spaceflight are inauthentic or where the saturation of spaceflight crowds out other interesting contexts for learning. This is a cautionary tale that could inform school-directed public engagement activities in other scientific contexts. 5
A similar European study in 2020 found that after primary school, girls were significantly less positive about space than boys 20.
Negative perceptions of space can drive people away
A motivator that is growing in importance is social impact. The generations now entering the workforce are more socially conscious than their predecessors 2122, and are willing to forgo salary in order to work for more socially beneficial organisations 23.
The climate crisis is consistently placed as among the public’s top concerns 24, but at the same time spaceflight is increasingly being associated with environmental damage and tourism for the rich 25. These negative associations can easily drive away people from considering the space sector as a career option.
A survey in Cornwall, home to the UK’s first active spaceport, found that residents see space as “a playground for the rich and famous” that the region “should have nothing to do with” 26. There is also growing public opposition to the use of UK spaceports for space tourism on environmental grounds 2728, most notably voiced by Prince William who said that we should be “focusing on this [planet] rather than giving up and heading out into space” 29. A 2019 survey by Ipsos found that 52% of Americans think that monitoring the Earth for environmental benefits should be a priority, rather than crewed missions to the Moon (8%) or Mars (18%) 4.
Is interest in space enough to get people into the space workforce?
Interest in space does not always translate into interest in a career in space. A report by Our Space Our Future found that while 63% of UK students aged 9-17 found space science to be interesting, only 18% wanted to work in the sector 30.
The large proportion of people citing interest in space as their primary reason for joining the sector is in some ways good news for the sector, as it shows there is a pool of keen people who need relatively little persuading. At the same time, it shows a possible area of weakness, as it suggests that other motivators are not sufficiently compelling. Virtually nobody (<1%) joins the space sector because the pay is good.
While interest is a powerful motivator, especially in shaping early career choices, it is not always enough later on. Young people are often willing to accept low pay in order to do something they find purposeful and interesting 31, whereas older workers are more likely to be constrained in their choices by responsibilities like parenting and place greater value on job security over career progression 32.
The space sector, like many sectors, is not yet transparent about salaries, though the campaign for pay transparency is growing in strength and in many places is now being put into law 33. Those looking to change careers face a challenge in estimating their worth, while job adverts offer little to no guidance on salaries, which deters people from bothering to apply 34. Additionally, salaries in the space sector, whilst competitive against other engineering sectors, lags behind the tech sector by at least £10,000 35.
Other reasons cited by census respondents, but much less commonly, were local availability of space sector jobs (5%) and that the sector offers good career progression (2%). This suggests that people are willing to move locations to work in the space sector, contributing to the success of regional space hubs.
Capability: Developing skills and experience
School, outreach, and the media build motivation for pursuing a career in space, but this needs to be accompanied by the development of capability: the skills and experience required to do a job in the space sector. Education and training are all about building that capability.
At the earliest stages of education, the skills required for space overlap heavily with those required for other STEM sectors. The majority of people in the space sector studied a STEM subject at university, which in the UK requires first studying STEM subjects at A level (16-18) and at GCSE (14-16), or equivalent qualifications. General STEM education in schools is the subject of much study already, and we will not repeat it here. Instead, in this section we focus primarily on higher and further education choices.
What educational choices do people make?
The space sector is very highly qualified
90% of Census respondents report having at least a first degree, and the 2021 Size and Health survey reported a figure of 73% 36. 7% hold an apprenticeship or other vocational qualification as their highest qualification, and 3% hold a school-level qualification such as GCSEs or A-levels.
Of those surveyed, 22% hold a bachelor’s as their highest qualification, 38% hold a master’s (with 2% holding a MBA and 1% holding a PGCE), and 30% hold a PhD. PhDs are unsurprisingly much more common in academia.
Almost all physicists and aerospace engineers (99%) have a degree, compared to ~87% of electronic and general engineers. However, very few physicists (1%) or aerospace engineers (3%) have entered the sector through an apprenticeship route, compared to 17% of electronics engineers and 15% of general engineers. This is not unexpected, since there are no degree apprenticeship programmes for physics. A recent consultation on physics degree apprenticeships highlighted employers’ concerns about reducing the rigorous nature of physics degrees 37.
A PhD is the most common highest qualification for those who studied physics (54%) and a master’s is the most common for those who studied aerospace engineering (79%).
Masters degrees are becoming more popular
Bachelor’s degrees on their own are declining in popularity, whilst master’s degrees are becoming the norm in the space sector. 71% of under 35s hold a master’s degree compared to 47% of over 35s. This is in line with national trends which have seen the percentage of students studying a master’s degree has risen from 22% in 2014/15 to 27% in 2020/21 38 39.
Qualifications are not always relevant
While the space sector is highly qualified, not everyone feels that their qualifications are relevant. A fifth (20%) said that their highest qualification was not important in getting their first job, and almost the same number (19%) said that their qualifications are not relevant to their current role.
|Qualification importance||Extremely relevant (%)||Quite relevant (%)||Not very relevant (%)|
|Important for getting first job||54||26||20|
|Relevant to current job||50||31||19|
Vocational qualifications are often a stepping stone
While the most common route into the space sector is through the A-level-to-university pathway, a significant number of people hold vocational qualifications alongside academic ones.
A fifth (20%) of respondents hold a vocational qualification, although far fewer (7%) hold a vocational qualification as their highest qualification. The most common level of vocational qualification is Level 3 (11%), which includes BTECs and apprenticeships, and is equivalent to A-Levels.
|Vocational qualification level||Has qual (%)||Is highest qual (%)|
|Level 2 (equiv. to GCSE)||6||0|
|Level 3 (equiv. to A-level)||11||1|
|Level 5 (equiv. to foundation degree)||5||2|
|Level 6 (equiv. to bachelor's degree)||2||1|
|Level 7 (equiv. to master's degree)||2||2|
What subjects do people choose to study?
Physics and engineering are by far the most common
The vast majority (86%) of people hold qualifications in a STEM subject. The most commonly studied subjects are physics or geophysics (34%) or a branch of engineering (31%). Only 6% of people studied computer science, despite programming and related skills being identified as the most in demand in the sector 4041.
People with a qualification in physics or engineering are more likely to say that they joined the space sector because they like space. So, put simply, people who like space are likely to have chosen to study these space-related subjects as part of a planned career pathway into the sector.
By contrast, those with a qualification in computer science, electronics engineering, geography and environmental science, or business are more likely to have joined because the space sector offers interesting work.
This holds mostly true for all age categories, though under 35s with a qualification in computer science appear to be much more interested in space than over 35s (52% vs 23%).
|Subject of study||Interesting work (%)||I like space (%)||No real reason (%)||Jobs available locally (%)||Good career progression (%)||Good salary (%)||Other (%)|
|Physics and Geophysics||52||42||0||2||3||0||0|
|Geography and Environmental Sciences||24||59||5||4||8||0||0|
Another answer is that there remains poor awareness of the wide range of roles available within the space sector. This means that students may make the choice of educational pathways to follow on the basis of stereotypes rather than a clear understanding of career pathways. The influence of these stereotypes can be seen in that there are very few studying computer science, geography, and geology, despite these being skills in high demand from the downstream space sector 4240.
Aerospace engineering is becoming more popular, electrical engineering less so
Aerospace engineering has become a much more common route into the sector. Among over 35s, only 8% have an aerospace/aeronautical engineering background, but this figure jumps to 21% among under 35s.
Between 1994 and 2020, the number of students enrolled on a degree in aeronautical/aerospace engineering has increased from ~0.3% of the student population to ~0.7%. In real terms, this is an increase from ~3,100 full-time undergraduate students in 1994/95 to ~12,100 in 2020/21 4344.
Reflecting this, The Guardian created a separate university league table for aerospace engineering for the first time in 2022 45.
Electronics engineering by contrast is becoming a less popular route into the sector, pursued by 12% of over 35s but only 6% of their younger peers. Our report on Pay in the UK Space Sector found that electronics engineering offers some of the highest salaries in the sector 35 and the Space Sector Skills Survey highlighted software engineering, radio frequency engineering, and electronics engineering as skills in short supply 41. With so few new entrants, demand is likely to continue to outpace supply.
The split between STEM and non-STEM qualifications has also changed. Despite an increase in activities to encourage those from non-traditional space backgrounds (i.e. not physics or engineering) to enter the space sector (for example non-technical-focused jobs boards like We Work in Space), the diversity of subjects studied appears to be decreasing. 90% of under 35s in space have a STEM qualification as their highest qualification compared to 84% of over 35s.
Subject choices and level vary by demographics
Subject choices and the level to which people study them tend to vary between people of different genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Within the space sector, women are slightly more likely to have studied non-STEM subjects, but this is because they are more likely to currently be in non-technical roles (admin, education, management, policy, or sales).
Women are more likely to have studied science while men are more likely to have studied engineering or computer science. In particular, they are more likely to have studied physics or geophysics (40% of women vs 31% of men) and much less likely to have studied engineering (18% vs 37%).
Women are very slightly more likely to have a degree than men (92% vs 89%), with the variation mainly in master’s degrees (60% vs 54%), but among those with a degree, the distribution of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees is almost the same.
However, women are much less likely than men to have gone through the apprenticeship route (2% vs 7%), echoing the nation-wide lack of girls in engineering apprenticeships 46.
There are some differences between the subject choices made across different ethnicities, particularly within engineering and physics. We caution that the number of people in each category is small when broken down by subject studied.
White people are more likely to have studied physics or geophysics, whereas people of other ethnicities are more likely to have studied engineering.
White people are less likely to have a degree than any other ethnicity (89% White vs 96% Black, mixed race and other vs 98% Asian).
By socio-economic background
There are some differences in the subjects studied depending on the type of school someone attended, which is a proxy for their socio-economic background.
People who attended state school are more likely to have studied physics or geophysics, while engineering is more evenly balanced. Respondents who went to independent schools are more likely to have a degree (94% vs 87%).
Scientists tend to go into science, engineers tend to go into engineering
While science roles are dominated by physics and geophysics graduates, engineering roles are a mix of graduates from all engineering disciplines, and management roles are held by graduates of all subjects. Computer science graduates are split primarily between engineering and computing roles, and physicists also occupy a large number of computing roles.
How much work experience do people get before starting work?
In addition to their studies, about 30% of people currently working in the space industry completed some form of space-related work experience or job training, usually an internship (13%) or a grad scheme (8%). These programmes play a dual role in building both capability and awareness.
Note: Due to an error in the design of the survey, ‘no work experience’ was not an option, so there is no way to distinguish between people who refused to answer this question and those who did not complete any work experience. However, the non-response rate for most questions is very low, around 1%, so the impact of this error should be minimal.
Work experience is becoming more common
Under 35s have accumulated significantly more work experience than their older colleagues prior to entering the sector.
Almost half (48%) of under 35s have completed some form of space-related work experience compared to just 18% of over 35s. The popularity of all kinds of work experience has significantly increased, most notably internships which are now completed by almost a third of 18-24 year-olds.
|Work experience type||Internship (%)||Work experience (%)||Sandwich year (%)||Graduate scheme (%)||Internship or work experience (%)|
In their free text answers, just over 100 people mentioned specific graduate schemes, most commonly those of Airbus/Astrium and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Graduate schemes are not new to the sector. The ESA Young Graduate Trainee (YGT) programme started in 1983 and now offers around 100 opportunities each year 47. In the UK, graduate schemes became more popular in the 1990s 48. For example, Airbus UK’s Direct Entry Graduate programme recruited 67 graduates in 2009, with a further 100 interns and 94 apprentices. The programme continued to grow, and pre-pandemic, Airbus took on over 600 interns and apprentices in 2019 49.
The popularity of internships has also increased, with a third of those in the youngest age bracket having done an internship before entering the sector. This phenomenon is not unique to the space sector, with entry to the modern workplace requiring a higher level of qualification and experience than it used to. The government now recommends that by the age of 18, someone should have at least two experiences of the workplace (not including a part time job) 50, while the popularity of internships has grown significantly over recent years 5152.
The popular Space Placements in Industry (SPIN) scheme has seen a surge in popularity since it started in 2013. In 2021, the SPIN programme received 3,500 applicants for 60 placements, and about 60% of SPINterns go on to receive a permanent job offer 53.
Women and minorities are more likely to have work experience
Women are more likely to have completed some form of work experience (37% vs 27%). This may be because women are more studious, or a result of programmes that are only open to women, such as Code First Girls and Insight into Engineering, and matches findings by the Women’s Engineering Society seen for the wider engineering sector 54.
White people are least likely to have completed any type of work experience (29%) compared to Asian people (43%), or those who are Black, mixed race, or other (36%).
The type of school a respondent attended appears to have no impact, with any type of work experience completed by ~29% of those who attend a state or independent school.
Is having the skills enough?
As well as actually having the skills, you have to think that you have the skills. This means that stereotypes about the kinds of people that work in space can have a tangible impact on who chooses to apply.
Space is associated strongly with intelligence – witness ‘rocket scientist’ as a common informal term for an exceptionally intelligent person. Young people, especially young women, already think that they are not ‘clever enough’ to study science, particularly physics 55, and this perception is even stronger for space science and technology jobs 56.
The need to be clever to have a career in space science was more pronounced than for any of the STEM subjects, with space science being perceived as even more difficult than maths. 56
This is compounded by space companies whose recruitment materials say that they accept only “the brightest and the best” and “the world's most talented people to join our team” 57.
The result is that some of those who do have the skills that are needed will write off space as a career option before properly investigating it. It is important that while the sector continues to promote space in the curriculum, it does so in a way that is inclusive and focuses on breaking down existing stereotypes.
Opportunity: Getting from education to employment
While motivation and capability are the driving forces behind education choices, it is opportunity that bridges the gap between education and employment.
Opportunity can be divided into two components: awareness and access. Awareness is knowing that the space sector exists and what career opportunities it offers, access is being able to take advantage of those opportunities.
How much do people really know about working in the space sector?
Interest is not awareness
Though space is increasingly present in our culture and curricula, the way it is presented often reinforces stereotypes that gives people a narrow view of what the space sector offers, particularly in the UK.
Star Trek, Star Wars, The Expanse, The Martian, Gravity – depictions of space abound in popular culture, but very few of these are anything close to realistic. While most hospital dramas do a decent job of presenting the kind of work that doctors and nurses do, space shows generally do not depict real space sector jobs, and that limits their value in increasing awareness even while they boost interest.
The roles most closely associated with the space sector are those that uniquely involve space like astronaut, astronomer, rocket scientist. When children aged 8-12 were asked ‘which … careers are part of space exploration?’ Astronaut was the most chosen answer (90%), followed by Engineer (58%) and Computer Programmer (52%) 3. A similar thing is seen in the aviation sector where ‘pilot’ is consistently named 9.
An additional problem for the UK space sector is that almost all realistic fictional depictions of space focus on NASA. This has a particularly strong impact on young people at an age where they are making decisions about their futures. A 2006 study of British school children aged 13-15 found that 77% could name NASA as a space research organisation, but less than 0.5% could name ESA (about the same as the number who suggested Men in Black) 58.
The Principia outreach programme associated with Tim Peake’s flight in 2015 will have improved this figure, but even today NASA-branded clothing is available from a wide range of high-street retailers including Next, River Island, Boohoo, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, ASOS, and Primark, while ESA and UKSA-branded clothing is not.
When do people join the space sector?
Most people join the space sector at the start of their career
About half (47%) of respondents joined as new graduates (under the age of 25), and over three quarters (77%) had joined by the age of 35.
Age 30 is the inflection point for the main motivation for joining the sector. Under 30s like space, while over 30s like interesting work.
|Age group||Like space (%)||Interesting work (%)|
There is lots of career advice for young people
Two main sources of career advice for young people are internet searches (55%) and parents/guardians (50%) 9. For those entering the space sector at an early age, there are a number of organisations producing educational resources about space, and two major providers of online space careers resources in the UK: ESERO-UK and the UK Space Agency’s Education and Skills Team, who jointly reached 312,000 people in 2019/20 (including 117,000 school-aged students) 59, and SpaceCareers.uk, focused on early careers, which has had over 600 thousand users since 2017 60. Careers events, like those held by UKSEDS and the National Space Academy, are also important, collectively reaching thousands of students each year 6162.
Though many graduates have an interest in space and a STEM degree, many have limited awareness of how to turn that into a job within the space sector. A report by UKSEDS found that student space conference attendees could only name a handful of space companies, and about half had not had any space company exhibit at their university 63.
There are few resources for career changers
Though there are a range of resources about space sector careers, these are primarily aimed at young people, from school age through to recent graduates, and there is virtually nothing available for career changers. Google searches turn up virtually no articles, websites, or events for people who want to change careers and move into the space sector, but there is a wealth of information for those who want to leave disciplines like engineering to convert to finance, consulting, or law.
Careers changers have not been a focus of recruitment efforts within the space sector, and we know very little about why or how people join the sector at a later stage, however, they make up more than half of the entire space sector.
What are the barriers to getting into the space sector?
Awareness is about knowing that job opportunities exist. Access is about being able to take advantage of them. Barriers to access include geography, poverty, discrimination, and legal restrictions like security clearance and work visas. Some of these barriers are largely unavoidable, others require national action for all sectors.
The housing crisis constrains growth
Though remote working has removed geographic barriers for certain jobs, many obstacles remain, particularly in the upstream, which require on-site work. The high cost of housing in areas like the South West makes it difficult for workers to find somewhere affordable within commuting distance 64. Allowing remote working, improving transport infrastructure, and encouraging house building near space clusters will help address this issue.
Discrimination and bias drive people away
Other barriers are caused by discrimination and bias, both intentional and unconscious. Many girls are deterred from a career in science and engineering because of gender stereotypes 65. When they do apply for a job in the sector they tend to be paid less 66. We have discussed the demographic makeup of the sector and possible hiring biases in a previous report.
There is already a huge amount of work being done to make space careers, and STEM more generally, accessible to young women and other excluded groups, with some successes 67. There are still opportunities for the space sector to adopt best practices in recruitment that help to minimise the impact of bias, and to provide better working environments for all.
Relying on space’s ‘cool’ factor is not enough
Most people join the sector because they like space and interesting work, not because it pays well. However, relying on space’s ‘cool’ factor is not enough to sustain a growing sector. The present skills shortages suggest that the sector has used up the pool of skilled space-enthusiasts and we must now make the sector attractive to a wider range of people.
As a survey of people who are in the space sector, the 2020 Space Census can’t tell us much about why people don’t join the sector, but we can make some educated guesses.
Choosing a space career requires a triangle of motivation (wanting to work in space), capability (having the skills to work in space), and opportunity (aware of and able to access space jobs). People who don’t join the sector are missing at least one of these three components. We need to understand the challenges and opportunities in each area and make sure that there is not too much of a focus on one to the detriment of the others.
Inspiration about space comes from a broad range of sources, and it is important to make use of the full range of these and go beyond traditional educational settings to encourage people, young and old, to choose to work in the space sector.
Being open to less traditional career paths gives us access to a wider pool of people
Many of the skills needed in the space sector are common to other STEM sectors which are also experiencing major recruitment challenges 68. The Edge Foundation estimates that there are more than 600,000 tech sector vacancies in the UK 69. Almost 20% of physics graduates choose to work in finance and banking 70, and just 38% of engineering graduates start their careers in engineering 71. This creates a challenge for the space sector, which also tends to offer lower pay than the tech sector 35.
The tech sector has responded to this recruitment challenge by lowering the barriers to entry, and increasing the number of pathways by which people can gain the skills they need. Most software development jobs do not require a degree in computer science, and instead have skills requirements that can be met by completing bootcamps and online courses 72. There are opportunities for the space sector to learn from approaches that have worked well in tech and apply them to its own skills challenges.
Although the space sector is the most highly qualified sector in the UK, it must consider whether the high qualification requirements are really necessary. The vast majority of people joining the space sector have followed a traditional university pathway. They spend 3 or more years studying, but then often still lack the skills that employers need 73. Almost a fifth of Census respondents said their highest qualification is not relevant to the role they are currently in. This means there is scope to lower barriers to entry, focusing on experience and ability rather than degrees only.
More work needs to be done to engage with career changers
There are also opportunities to reach out to those who have the right skills but are further on in their career. Almost a quarter of the workforce joins after the age of 35, but we don’t know how they found out about the space sector. The lack of career changing opportunities is likely to be hampering growth, and the sector could build on its successes in school-level outreach by creating similar resources for late entrants.
Based on the findings of this and related research, we have set out five recommendations for actions that the space sector can take to improve its skills pipeline in our 5 Solutions to the Space Skills Gap.
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We would like to thank the Satellite Applications Catapult and UK Space Agency for funding this report, the University of Leicester for funding the 2020 Space Census, and the Space Growth Partnership, UK Space Agency, and UKspace for providing resources and support for this research.
A huge thank you goes out to Craig Brown and Kathie Bowden for their continued support on the 2020 Space Census, and to our friends and colleagues, Rob Garner, Áine O’Brien, and Terry Hagan for their advice, ideas, and typo-spotting eyes.
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Estimating age of entry
When asking respondents how old they were and how long they had worked in the space sector, we provided 5-year brackets like 25-29 years old and 5-9 years.
To estimate the age at which they entered the space sector we subtracted the midpoint of their length of time in the sector bracket (7 for 5-9) from the midpoint of their age bracket (27 for 25-29). For example, someone who said they were 25-29 years old and had been in the space sector for 5-9 years would be estimated to have joined at age 20.
This estimation is relatively rough, but allows us to give an approximate breakdown of what age people were when they joined the space sector.
We only included those who answered both questions in our calculations.
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