VFS warns of critical shortage of vertical flight engineers

The U.S. vertical lift industry is facing a shortage of engineers that is poised to become worse in coming years, according to the Vertical Flight Society (VFS).

Sikorsky Raider X
Future Vertical Lift programs such as the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft — for which Sikorsky’s Raider X is a contender — will require hundreds of qualified engineers. These will become harder to come by unless workforce development is prioritized, the Vertical Flight Society warns. Sikorsky Image
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In a new white paper, VFS predicts that the country’s demand for vertical lift scientists and engineers will expand tenfold over the next two decades, driven by the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) modernization effort as well as the rapidly growing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and urban air mobility industry. The technical society is calling on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA to significantly expand sustained, long-term research grants “to proactively address the growing workforce requirement and ensure U.S. competitive edge in the vertical lift industry.”

“There’s a critical supply shortage that’s hitting the industry already, and that’s talent,” said VFS executive director Mike Hirschberg, who led a panel discussion on workforce challenges during the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime virtual launch event on May 1.

“There are critical needs for the helicopter industry for both civil and military helicopter development,” he continued, estimating that each ambitious new aircraft developed under FVL and similar programs will require 500 to 1,000 engineers to see through to completion. Yet the emerging eVTOL industry, facing its own talent shortage, is creating “huge competition,” as “people are being hired away from critical programs for the nation’s national security needs,” he said.

VFS is advocating for expanded investment in the country’s existing Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence (VLRCOEs) — a program originally established in 1982 to grow academic research and graduate education in a number of multi-disciplinary research areas critical to vertical lift technology.

The present VLRCOE program comprises three university centers led by the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Maryland, which have established partnerships with 18 other universities, primarily in the U.S. Currently, the U.S. Army, Navy, and NASA collaboratively fund the VLRCOE program at about $4.6 million per year across all the participating institutions, a funding amount that has actually decreased over the past 38 years both in actual and inflation-adjusted values.

The VFS white paper contends that increasing funding to existing VLRCOEs and partner institutions could increase the number of vertical lift engineering graduates in “a fairly rapid manner.” In the longer term, the number of lead institutions in the program could be expanded.

The paper calls on the DoD and NASA to assume leadership of this effort, and to seek active participation by the U.S. Air Force, whose Agility Prime initiative aims to catalyze development of the commercial eVTOL industry.

“The great thing about this is that we already have a lot of great infrastructure that we can use here; we don’t have to start from scratch,” said Georgia Tech VLRCOE director Marilyn Smith during the Agility Prime workforce development panel. “We believe it’s cost-effective to build upon the VLRCOE infrastructure, both the centers and all of our partners, and there’s no reason why other universities can’t join in with their specialties.”

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Professor Farhan Gandhi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggested that increasing funding by a targeted $18 million per year could result in up to 100 additional master’s and PhD-level engineers entering the VTOL/eVTOL workforce. These graduates with advanced education in the challenges specific to vertical flight would be “linchpins” in the industry, around whom engineers with undergraduate degrees could work to meet total workforce needs, he said.

VFS isn’t the only organization warning of a talent shortage. In a white paper on the FVL industrial base released on May 6, the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “The biggest challenge facing the entire rotorcraft industry is the competition for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) talent with non-traditional defense firms like Amazon and Google, which can offer substantially more money.”

As Hirschberg emphasized during the Agility Prime panel, “The workforce is one of those critical bottlenecks that’s going to prevent us from reaching the future we want, if the talent pipeline is not very soon ramped up, because it’s a zero-sum game.”

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