What you need to know about the Space Sector Skills Survey report

by Joseph Dudley

The results of the UK Space Agency’s Space Sector Skills Survey have been published today, and besides being a contender for the most alliterative publication of the year, this hotly-awaited report finally provides some figures for the space sector’s recruitment and training needs.

The report, produced by BMG, is based on a quantitative survey of 96 companies and qualitative in-depth interviews with 21 in autumn 2020 reflecting on late 2019 and early 2020 [p. 3]. The stats quoted below refer to the results of the quantitative survey.

It confirms some things we already suspected, and provides some great new data, particularly around training. It’s just over 100 pages long, so to save you some time here’s a summary of the key points and how they relate to other recent reports.

A summary of the summary

  • Most space companies are looking to recruit. Of those, most are struggling to find candidates with the right skills and experience. Particular gaps are around software and satellite operations.
  • The range of skills needed is very wide, which means there is “no obvious single focus for training … that would address a substantial proportion of the recruitment difficulties”.
  • Retention is also a problem for some, particularly for large companies, mostly because of pay and poaching.
  • Most companies do some kind of training, but there are some significant gaps in training provision.
  • There is interest in a generic space graduate development programme to address some of these issues.

A note on page numbers: The printed page numbers in the PDF are 5 pages behind the virtual page numbers, so if you ask your PDF reader for page 10 you’ll be taken to a page that says 5 on it. The page numbers referred to here are the printed page numbers.

How many space companies are looking to recruit?

Size & Health 2018 found that 68% of UK space sector organisations expected to be hiring and that about 40% found staff recruitment a major barrier to their growth. Size & Health 2020 should be out later this year to give us some updated figures on this.

The Skills Survey sees very similar numbers with well over two thirds of businesses looking to recruit staff with specialised space (average 71%) or transferable skills (83%). Two things stand out here, the first is that the highest demand for both types of skills comes from satellite operators (83% space, 97% transferable compared to 67% and 83% for component manufacturers), and the second is that demand for transferable skills is consistently higher than demand for space specialist skills, to the tune of about 15 percentage points across the upstream sector (it’s only 3pp in the downstream) [fig. 8, p. 21].

This compares to about 46% of employers nationally, so the space sector is a lot keener on recruiting than the rest of the country (and this was pre-COVID).

In terms of volume, more than half (56%) were looking to recruit at least 4 people, so we’re talking a minimum of several hundred job openings just from the 96 surveyed companies. This tallies with figures from the recruitment website SpaceCareers.uk who post about 200 early careers jobs a year.

How big is the skills gap?

Of those looking to recruit, about two thirds (67%) had difficulty. Difficulty hiring appears to be roughly proportional with hiring demand, so we see satellite operators facing the most difficulty (78%). Larger companies appear to struggle more than smaller ones (79% of those with 50+ employees vs 36% of those with fewer than 10) [fig. 9, p. 22].

If we combine these figures with those above, then we find that half (54%) of all space businesses are struggling to recruit, and just under 70% of all satellite operators.

The main causes for these difficulties are lack of experience (88%) and lack of specialist skills (73%). Other causes are Brexit (61%), competition from other businesses (50%), and difficulty getting people to relocate (49%) [fig. 12, p. 25], but we can’t do much about them (however much I might personally want to rejoin the EU...).

Results from the 2020 Space Census found that about 12% of the UK’s space workforce are European nationals, and of those, about 12% are leaving their jobs because of Brexit.

Just over half (51%) of all respondents reported having current skills gaps in their current workforce (pretty much equal to the proportion struggling to recruit). The problem varies quite a bit between subsectors though, with 67% of satellite operators and 59% of software companies reporting a gap [fig. 13, p. 28].

The knock on effect of these gaps is primarily increased workload for other staff (70%) and delays in work (58%) [fig. 19, p. 34]. 64% of businesses described it as a moderate or major problem for them [fig. 20, p. 35]. Understandably, smaller companies were more likely to consider it a major issue.

Which skills are missing?

Looking first at technical skills, top of the table are software (52%), systems (45%), and electronics (48%) engineering and related disciplines. Interestingly, AI gets a special mention and comes in at an impressive 38% (it’s talked about in more detail on p. 62). There’s then a long tail of demand for other kinds of engineering (mechanical, thermal, robotics etc.) at 20% and below [fig. 14, p. 29]. Note that these are percentages of those companies who report technical skills gaps in their current workforce (51%), so halve them to get overall figures.

The report doesn’t go into much detail about specific skills within those top-level categories because there’s such a wide range. It highlights the major challenge that everyone trying to address skills shortages is grappling with at the moment, that

“reflecting this observed diversity [in required skills]… there is no obvious single focus for training and development at under-graduate level or above, such that a greater output from a single or small number of training programmes would address a substantial proportion of the recruitment difficulties identified here.”

para. 76, p. 26

The software result closely aligns with the results of our report on skills demand for early career jobs, which found 49% of jobs asked for software-related skills. The electronics figure by contrast is significantly higher in this new report at 48% vs 17% in ours. However, our jumps up to 51% if we just look at electronics jobs, so this is probably just a case of biases within the overall samples used for the two reports.

Within transferable skills, project management is top by a considerable margin at 67%, followed by team work (48%), leadership, business planning, and client management (all three on 43%) [fig. 15, p. 30]. These are percentages of those companies who report transferable skills gaps in their current workforce (22%), so though they’re higher than the numbers for technical skills, they apply to a small number of companies.

Comparing these to our report, we found that interpersonal and communication skills came out very high at 84% of jobs, but project management was way down at 16%. This is likely because our report focused on early career positions, which don’t typically involve management. It’s also possible businesses aren’t being explicit in their adverts about wanting this particular skill.

In both reports, we see transferable skills rating at least as higher and in some cases higher than technical skills, further reinforcing the importance of giving equal focus to both types in teaching and training.

The main cause is unsurprisingly recruitment difficulties (76%). Staff being new (51%) and products/services being new (39%) also get a mention, but these are likely to be largely short-term issues. The next highest is skilled staff leaving (39%), which brings us nicely on to the next section.

Challenges with retention

As well as struggling to recruit, some companies (23%) are struggling to retain. This seems to principally be a problem for large companies (52%). Smaller companies report virtually no problems (5%) in this area.

This probably has something to do with culture and the feeling of not being as valued when you’re one cog among many versus being a linchpin in a small team.

The leading reason for poor retention is pay (41%), followed by poaching (32%), lack of career development opportunities (27%) and our old nemesis of Brexit (also 27%).

These results chime with those from the Census, which found almost half (46%) of the workforce were at least interested in changing jobs, with the main reasons being career advancement (63%) and pay (24%).

Retention seems to chiefly be an issue at the mid-career point, as after a few years on the job graduates realise they’re now a lot more valuable and take the opportunity to jump ship for higher pay. Figure 26 on page 52 illustrates this gap between skills and pay that occurs around the 3 to 6 year mark.

Demand for training

To address these skills gaps, businesses engage in training. 80% of all businesses did some training (100% of big companies, 59% of micro ones), either on- (73%) or off-the-job (54%).

Of those, 73% upskilled existing staff in space-related skills, 47% provided some kind of traineeship (grad scheme, sandwich placement, summer placement etc.), and 26% provided some kind of apprenticeship.

Most of that training was done in-house by members of staff who were not specialist trainers (69%) or by private training companies (58%) [fig. 22, p. 39]. Big companies were more likely to use staff; small companies were more likely to use training companies [table 4, p. 39].

40% of companies said there were gaps in current training provision, primarily at the graduate/post-graduate level. As with recruitment, the range of skills in demand is very broad, but groups into three main areas: space-specific skills (e.g. GNSS, orbital mechanics, space systems), generic technical skills (e.g. software, data-science, electronics), and generic management and commercial skills (e.g. commercial awareness, mid-level management, negotiation). The report points out that there is an abundance of training available for the latter two groups as they are not space specific, and it’s unclear why space companies report this as an issue.

Graduates & a sector-wide Graduate Training Programme

The good news for the sector (but not so much for recent grads) is that graduates are in plentiful supply, and “often entry-level positions receive a lot of applications, allowing employers the luxury of choice within the graduate market”.

The bad news is that they often lack skills and experience “which appears to stem from a lack of these subjects and skills being taught at universities”, fuelling the need for post-employment training. Portia Bowman at D-Orbit, who co-founded SpaceCareers.uk with me, says that “It’s easy to recruit young people who are very capable, but they don’t have the experience…”

A key source of experience for graduates is placements and participation in competitions. My friend Andy Bacon of Space Forge is quoted in this section, and was instrumental in creating UKSEDS’ Olympus Rover Trials, a student Mars rover competition, for exactly this reason. He points out however that this can create “a biased selection to students who have personal funds or whose universities have money … the availability of funding for those extracurricular activities that really make an engineer stand out doesn’t seem to be easily available.”

There is considerable interest in the idea of a sector-wide Graduate Training Programme for SMEs, an idea that was floated in the 2014 IGS Skills Theme Report, modelled on a programme offered by the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy for their SMEs.

This is (to my knowledge) the first time industry has been formally surveyed about interest in it, and the results are very positive. 56% said it would be valuable, and another 40% said they’d consider it if provided with more details [table 5, p. 42]. However, there remains a significant challenge about what this grad scheme would cover given the issues discussed above about the wide range of skills needed in the sector.

There is also some interest in developing something that addresses not only graduates, but also those transferring from other sectors, a kind of space conversion course [para. 219, p. 59; Paras. 236–238, p. 63].

The premium placed on space experience extends beyond graduate recruitment, and the report notes that “Many hiring managers are hesitant to take on personnel who come from different backgrounds, and often are unable or unwilling to train those who come from outside the sector.” This is a cultural block that the sector is going to need to get past. Demanding experience whilst simultaneously refusing to provide it is a guaranteed route to further recruitment problems.

What next?

The sector has a lot of work ahead of it to address these challenges, and is going to need to do so in concert with wider efforts to boost the STEM workforce.

Further exploring the idea of a generic space graduate training programme seems like a priority, as does getting academia and industry to work together in order to make sure the training given on university courses matches up with those needed by the sector.

The very high demand for software, data, AI and other related skills puts the space sector in direct competition with the wider tech sector, who have recruitment issues of their own, and often considerably higher salaries.

As we noted in our skills report last year, the tech sector has already invested a great deal of resources into tackling this problem, and space should draw on the lessons learned from this work in the development of its own strategy both independent of and in partnership with the tech sector.

How we can help

If your organisation is struggling with these kinds of recruitment, training, and retention challenges, then come and talk to us.

We can help you write better job adverts that attract a wider pool of quality candidates (check out our Space Recruitment Toolkit), improve culture to boost retention, and work directly with training providers to make sure that new recruits have the skills you need.

Name of citation