Taking Off

A multinational company, a corporate training provider and five universities expand their program to address the skills gap in aerospace engineering.

September 12, 2014
Georgia Institute of Technology
An AerosPACE team poses with drones designed and built by the engineering students.

To get five universities to collaborate on closing the skills gap in aerospace engineering, all it took was the attention of a global multibillion-dollar corporation: Boeing.

It’s a partnership known as AerosPACE, short for Aerospace Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering. This fall, students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Brigham Young, Purdue, Tuskegee and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Universities can choose a yearlong capstone project in which they design, build and test fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (or, in less technical terms, a drone).

Last year -- the program’s first -- students built drones to collect terrain data with the goal of boosting crop yields and food production. This year, with newcomer Tuskegee on board, students will create drones that can be launched in disaster areas to help first responders decide where to focus their relief efforts.

It's an initiative meant to show students that engineering means more than surveying schematics and building bridges, Boeing employees in charge of the program said. And when students next year present their work to an advisory board of industry representatives and subject matter experts, they will do so hoping not just for a good grade, but for an internship or job offer to launch a career in engineering.

The universities and Boeing are able to collaborate thanks to input from a range of governmental and private sector partners -- from NASA and the National Science Foundation to the 3D printer producer Stratasys -- but the effort is held together by CorpU, a corporate training provider that specializes in leadership development.

“We tend to work on big, unsolved problems,” said Alan Todd, CEO of CorpU, who described AerosPACE as a “side project." The company’s online platform, which launched in 2008, hosts about two dozen programs, most of which are in emerging and business leadership.

The company caters its services to global corporations, then connects them with business schools that can produce the relevant content. The courses, which last about five weeks, cost about $1,000 per student, and CorpU shares its revenue with the partner universities.

Boeing’s “big, unsolved problem” is its aging workforce, which Todd said presented an opportunity to do research and development work with the company. Aerospace industry groups estimate one-quarter of workers in the field have reached or are close to reaching the age of retirement, and fear there’s a shortage of candidates in line to succeed them. The students who do graduate with engineering degrees are being headhunted not only by Boeing and its competitors, but also by Wall Street and technology companies.

“The world is more competitive, and there are lots of cool careers out there that didn’t exist 50 years ago,” said Michael Richey, associate technical fellow at Boeing. “Think about Apple and Microsoft and Google -- that’s our top competition.”

Foreign workers may help alleviate that concern, but that raises another question: How best can workers across continents and time zones communicate? Boeing had hoped to involve universities outside the U.S. in the program, but those plans are still in the works. Still, with students scattered across the U.S. in cities from Atlanta to Seattle, Boeing is able to run a smaller-scale version of that experiment.

The four teams in this year’s cohort all consist of students from the five universities involved, and in addition to managing budget and time constraints, they need to maneuver the complications of not working in the same office.

“It’s project-based and really creates a microcosm of Boeing,” Richey said. “We have students that are working on a distributed, massive multi-user design interface connected to social networking tools ..., and we’re collecting all this unobtrusive data as we’re moving through this design-build-fly project. It’s not their father’s toolbox.”

CorpU’s online education platform feeds Boeing information about student performance, and also offers a glimpse at which social networks and collaborative spaces its future employees may use to work together. As the program on Wednesday kicked off its second year at an event in Mesa, Ariz., Michael Vander Wel, chief engineer for Boeing Commercial Aircraft, said the company intends to link AerosPACE more closely to its internship and hiring processes.

“It’s going to become a new way of filling the talent pipeline at Boeing,” Todd said.

Faculty members at participating universities, however, played down AerosPACE’s function as a job training program.

“It’s an education,” said John P. Sullivan, a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue.

While the program may be built around competencies Boeing would like to see in its new employees, faculty members contribute lectures based on their own expertise and decide how students are evaluated. These are, after all, credit-bearing capstone courses.

“Education serves multiple purposes, and in the engineering world, one of them is preparing [students] for jobs,” said Carl Johnson, research engineer in the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory at Georgia Tech. “The key element from the university’s side is the education, so it’s not a job training program.”

Both Boeing and the faculty members said the institutions could have created programs where students build drones on their own, although they agreed that, without Boeing’s presence, it is unlikely they would have been able to cooperate with institutions they sometimes compete with.

“We call it ‘co-opetition,’ ” said Marcus Nance, Boeing Defense Systems’ director for competitiveness and integration. “We’re acting as a catalyst. In the aerospace world, we have to work with our competitors -- Lockheed, Northrop Grumman. That’s how we do business.”

Added Sullivan, “If you’re in an aerospace department and someone from Boeing calls and says ‘Hey, would you like to participate?’ there’s a strong pull for us to be involved.”

Boeing also pays for the program. Richey estimated the program costs about about $150,000 a year, factoring in travel costs, stipends and the time Boeing employees devote to the project. As the program continues to grow, he said, it is likely to pursue external funding.


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