FARNBOROUGH NEWS: New Report Urges Defense Industry to Secure Software Talent

By Meredith Roaten

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FARNBOROUGH, United Kingdom — Looking at the bells and whistles on display at one of Europe’s largest airshows, anyone can see that software is the future of aerospace.

But the aerospace and defense industries may fall behind the pace of innovation if they can’t keep talent, according to a new analysis revealed at the Farnborough International Airshow.

Software engineers who work in other sectors can expect an average compensation that approaches double that of their defense and aerospace counterparts, according to the report “Debugging the software talent gap in aerospace and defense.”

That’s a problem for nations trying to build a healthy defense industrial base, Matt Schrimper, a McKinsey analyst, told reporters at a Farnborough event July 20. Aerospace defense coding needs are increasing while a 50,000-person gap remains unfilled.

“One way to think about this is you've got the amount of code in aerospace platforms doubling every four years,” Schrimper said. “Well, there are real people, they're humans, there's talent that sits on the other side of that code.”

One recent example of software shining in military operations is the use of Starlink terminals in the war in Ukraine, according to the report. SpaceX’s quick software fixes thwarted Russia’s attempt to jam the terminals early in the conflict. These types of events are growing in frequency, the report found.

Another shift is Western defense companies are changing their systems from platform-oriented to networked and interoperable platforms, said Dale Swartz, an associate partner at McKinsey. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation air dominance program will use artificial intelligence and algorithms to connect its new fighter jet with uncrewed systems.

Traditional companies that work for the Defense Department are making efforts to catch up. The biggest aerospace and defense companies hire about two software engineers for every hardware engineer, according to the report.

The defense tech startups that have increased in number over the years are succeeding because of their talent edge, Swartz said.

“They have privileged access to software- and data science-oriented talent, and the ability to attract a new generation of folks,” he said.

Schrimper noted that the key problem behind the talent crisis is how easy it is for software engineers to leave their jobs. The advent of remote work and attractive compensation packages from tech companies can tempt software engineers away from the industry.

While some aerospace companies were predicting the possibility of a recession could return some power to employers, it’s not a realistic expectation, he said. The demand for software engineers is so strong that it will likely outweigh any economic instability.

“There's no reason to think based on the data that will be alleviated anytime soon,” he said.

Beyond compensation, software engineers also care about growth opportunities and continuing education, he added. Where defense companies could have a definitive edge over traditional tech is in providing workers a purpose, he said.

“[Aerospace and defense] companies are mission-first companies. It's not some facade they need to put on over the top of the business,” he said.

In particular, the younger generations that will make up the workforce of the future care about their jobs bringing fulfillment, he noted.

Meanwhile, the labor shortage broadly is impacting defense companies at Farnborough. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a labor shortage in addition to problems with supply chain access to materials.

Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon Missiles and Defense, told reporters on July 19 that the conditions affecting Raytheon could be solved with time. But with an ongoing war in Ukraine, the time crunch is putting pressure on every nation to figure out how to ramp up production for essential technology such as munitions.

“Like I said, long term, all of these things are fixable,” he said. “But the question is, how much time do you have if you're Ukraine?”


Topics: Emerging Technologies, Global Defense Market, Technology Tomorrow