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Competing with Silicon Valley for engineers, aerospace firms start recruitment in pre-kindergarten

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES -- USC mechanical engineering junior Stephanie Balais developed a passion for aerospace after joining the university's AeroDesign team and helping to construct an airplane fuselage hours before transporting the plane to a competition in Kansas.

As internships beckoned, she sent in a number of applications to top defense and aerospace firms. But Microsoft Corp. snagged her first. This summer, Balais, 20, will spend 13 weeks in Redmond, Wash., working in the tech giant's manufacturing and supply chain department.

Silicon Valley and other tech centers have always been popular landing places for young engineers, with their lure of cutting-edge technology and top-notch pay. But aerospace companies are facing an even stiffer challenge as web and computer companies, and other sectors like the auto industry, move into areas like drones and autonomous systems.

Aerospace employers are realizing they have to dig deeper -- and adjust their messaging -- to capture top tech talent.

They are starting to reach out earlier to potential employees -- as early as elementary school or even pre-kindergarten -- to get them interested in science and math. And they're recognizing the challenge they have building awareness with a generation that never had a real space race, but grew up with Google, Snapchat and Apple as part of their daily lives.

"This is something that's very critical to our member companies," said Dan Stohr, spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association trade group. "They're putting serious money into this, to the tune of millions of dollars a year."

Lockheed Martin Corp. has launched a program called Generation Beyond aimed at encouraging middle school students' interest in deep space exploration. The initiative includes a class curriculum, a downloadable Mars weather app and a traveling school bus modified so that children riding it can see the Martian landscape through the windows.

"One of the things we've been seeing is that this generation of students doesn't necessarily know or have grown up with Lockheed Martin, as their parents did," said Steve Hatch, the company's director for central talent acquisition, of current college students. "As we look at the competition, how do we go attract that talent sooner ... but at the same time, get them interested in STEM."

In early 2015, Northrop Grumman Corp. opened an innovation center called NG Next based in Redondo Beach, Calif., where it is doubling down on basic research to figure out solutions to problems that may be years in the future. The organization takes a more aggressive approach to experimentation, which can be attractive to potential employees looking for a creative work environment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26,000 aerospace engineers were employed as of May 2015 in product and parts manufacturing, a category that covers about 70 percent of the aerospace and defense industry, but excludes many suppliers in sectors like shipbuilding. Joining them were about 5,900 electrical engineers, about 14,000 mechanical engineers and 12,000 software developers of systems software.

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