AIA Organizes Workforce Panel at Historically Black Colleges and Universities Meeting

As part of AIA’s commitment to growing and retaining a robust workforce, AIA Director for Workforce and Industrial Base Policy Robin Thurman organized a lively aerospace and defense industry panel called “Bridging the Gap: From Classroom to Corporate World,” as part of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Chancellors and Presidents gathering in Washington on February 28.

Left to Right: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Dr. Vernon Ross (SAIC), Ted Colbert (Boeing), Peter Brooks (Northrop Grumman), Brett Cohen (Elbit Systems of America) and Will Whitley (Michelin North America)

The session moderated by Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) in an ornate room in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building featured Boeing’s Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President of Information & Analytics Ted Colbert, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Systems Sector Senior Director for Talent Acquisition Peter Brooks, Elbit Systems of America’s Vice President of Human Resources and Employee Development Brett Cohen, SAIC’s Director of Inclusion and Diversity Dr. Vernon Ross and Michelin North America’s Chief of Staff and Director of Events, Communications and Brands Department Will Whitley. They discussed how HBCUs can prepare their students to enter the aerospace and defense industry, with an emphasis on current and future workforce needs and the exciting careers our industry offers.

When asked about the aerospace and defense industry’s interest in hiring the up and coming generation of scientists and engineers, Brooks said, “We are rapidly approaching a crisis in terms of replenishing the talent pool. Seventy-eight percent of corporate executives say this is their first priority. We have to open our aperture on talent, not lower the bar, by hiring for capability and training where we need for skills.” Picking up on this theme, Cohen added, “We look for the ability [of new employees] to adapt to new situations. We can leverage the interest of young people who want to make a difference in the world.” Colbert noted that when Boeing goes out to recruit new employees, “We engage professors and heads of departments. We also spend time selling to students about what we do and express our hope that they’ll be part of our mission to Mars or design the next airplane. In fact, we do as much selling about what we do as the students do in selling us about their capabilities.” Ross said that today’s students interested in entering the aerospace and defense workforce “need a strong background in math, science, English and writing. If you can’t articulate with well-crafted writing in our disciplines, no one will know what’s in your head.” Whitley concluded, “We’re looking for people coming out of school who are self-motivated, self-reliant and self-aware.”

Jackson State University interim President Rod Paige, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, asked the panel members what they would change in their approach to HBCUs. Ross said he would encourage industry to increase the number and percentage of industry collaboration with HBCUs, “allowing industry to share with students what’s going on in industry and what skills they are looking for.” Colbert said HBCUs and other schools should “infuse concepts of data science in every discipline. There’s a fourth industrial revolution occurring. Data is just as valuable as any other resource. It can be applied to studies in finance, human resources, philosophy, across the board.”

Anthony Jenkins, President of West Virginia State University, asked the panel members if graduates of HBCUs are given the same consideration by aerospace and defense firms in hiring as those of institutions such as Penn State, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and MIT. “The reality is we have a long way to go,” responded Colbert. “We make progress through engagement. But we don’t stratify our hiring based on where you come from.”

And finally, in response to a question from Central State University (Ohio) President Cynthia Jackson-Hammond about opportunities for women in the aerospace and defense workforce, Brooks said, “Bridging the [gender] gap is critical. We are certainly committed to aggressively hiring women and putting them in leadership in our community.”