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An Engineering Manpower Crisis

There's an interesting article over at the NYT about the Pentagon's difficulty in getting good engineers, particularly systems engineers.

In short, the pay is too low, it's not seen as exciting as a lot of the other opportunities for new grads (e.g., Google, or other fields such as finance), programs take too long and are technologically obsolescent, and there's too much bureaucracy. Sounds kind of like the reasons I left fifteen years ago.

This was amazing to me, but I guess that after almost three decades in the business, it shouldn't be:

Their report scolded the Air Force as haphazardly handling, or simply ignoring, several basic systems-engineering steps: considering alternative concepts before plunging ahead with a program, setting clear performance goals for a new system and analyzing interactions between technologies. The task force identified several programs that, hobbled by poor engineering management, had run up billions of dollars in overruns while falling behind schedule.

I've seen this happen at NASA many times over the years, but that doesn't surprise me because space isn't important. National defense is, or at least should be. One wonders how to change the incentives in the system to get better performance. Part of the problem is that the services themselves, particularly the Air Force (with which I have the most experience) don't value procurement highly enough as a career path. It's a lot easier to become a general via the cockpit than it is through logistics or development. The other problem is that you often having young lieutenants and captains given responsibility for programs of a size far beyond what they'd be managing at a similar experience level in private industry. This is good from the standpoint of encouraging recruitment, but it often means that they lack the experience to handle the job, and even (or especially) when they're good, they may be promoted up and out of the program. That's one of the Aerospace Corporation's primary functions--to provide program support to the blue suits, and maintain an institutional memory to make up for the fluidity of personnel changes of the AF staff.

In theory, it's a big opportunity for people like me (I actually have a masters degree in aerospace program management), but it's hard to get consulting work as an individual due to arcane procurement rules. Also (though the article didn't mention it) it's a hassle to deal with a clearance, and I'm not in any rush to renew mine, though I'm starting to consider it, because I really do need the income. Blogging just isn't paying the bills.

Oh, one other thing. The description of the problems above bears a strong resemblance to a certain controversial large NASA project, where maintenance of the job base and pinching pennies seems to take precedence over actually accomplishing the goal. Or "closing the gap."

[Via Chicago Boyz]


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DensityDuck wrote:

"That's one of the Aerospace Corporation's primary functions..."

Ahem. Aerospace Corp's primary function is to ensure that government contractors act like the government.

You wonder why government contractors are so focused on pointless bureaucracy? It's because the government MAKES US DO IT. The government makes a lot of noise about COTS, but they don't actually want COTS; they want government-spec stuff at a COTS price. They want full analysis and static testing of every bolt. They want to see an entire lifetime support cost analysis for vehicles that are, currently, a blob with a radio stuck on it--and any deviations from that analysis require a week-long discussion. They want complete tracking of every dollar spent--they'll happily spend ten dollars to ensure that you don't waste one.

Rand Simberg wrote:

You wonder why government contractors are so focused on pointless bureaucracy? I don't wonder that. But I do wonder why you think I do.

It's because the government MAKES US DO IT.

You write that as though it's something I don't know, or have ever disputed.

What's your point?

Dennis Wingo wrote:


Great post and your comment is right on, especially the first sentence about pay. At a conference in DC a few months ago when I stated that low pay (the San Jose Mercury salary survey puts aerospace engineers at the bottom of the heap) the senior VP of Lockheed Martin and the Lt. Governor of Colorado both dismissed that as a factor. Pay is not the only factor as you accurately identify the really boring pace of most space programs and that you could have an entire career and only get two or three pieces of hardware in space.

As long as the status quo exists, aerospace will continue to suffer and so will our nation.

K wrote:

When you hear the call "Not enough aerospace engineers" the shoe to be dropped next is the one asking for more foreign engineers to be brought in. More pay for domestic engineers? Don't be silly!

Grant wrote:

I spent 9 years working on DoD space projects at one of the big contractors, right out of Caltech as an undergrad, getting my MSEE shortly after that. I'm now on a leave of absence getting my MBA, and I likely won't return to the industry.

After spending those 9 years on a single technology development program, that program was still at the exact same point in the government procurement process as the day I started. Half was due to continually drifting requirements and half due to budget delays/political decisions. The technology had crept along incrementally as we updated things while we waited for a decision either way, but I was severely bored, because there was no prospect of doing something new.

I just couldn't stand the constantly moving goalposts.

Dfens wrote:

It's sad to see good engineers leave the field, Grant, but it's probably the right move. I spent 4 years on space station and accomplished nothing in that time. I found things better in the military aircraft arena, but even then when I was drafted onto F-22 it was the same damn thing as space station. I'll never get that year back.

Requirements creep and all that crap is just a smoke screen for what's really going on. The fact of the matter is, ever since we started getting paid profit on development (around '92 for military stuff, NASA has always payed profit on development), design cycles have dragged out forever. F-22 took 25 years to design when the F-15 took 3. That's absurd. There's not an order of magnitude more complexity to the F-22, and even for what additional complexity that does exist, there's at least that much more technology to be applied. It should be a wash.

Maybe with your MBA you can fix the way the government does business. There's no good engineering that's going to be done until success starts paying better than failure and results pay better than process.

Josh Reiter wrote:

A few years back I was re-examining my life and what I wanted to do. I have a logical, materialistic mind, and love aerospace -- aerospace engineering it is. Then, I looked that media salaries and my jaw dropped. I was making more than that as an uneducated help-desk analyst. I guess society finds more value in someone showing them how to print their email then building spacecraft.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on June 26, 2008 7:24 AM.

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