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- September 13th, 2023 Posted in News

Space Sector Skills Survey 2023New recruits with skills in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are in high demand to harness the benefits of emerging technologies in the UK space sector, according to a new survey.

The latest research into space skills across businesses, government and academia shows that nearly all space organisations experience some skills-related issues (95%), well over a third (37%) are missing expertise in software and data analysis, and nearly a quarter (21%) are expressing the need for AI and machine learning specifically, higher than any other technical area.

According to the UK Space Agency’s Space Sector Skills Survey 2023 – developed in partnership with the Space Skills Alliance and – software and data analysis accounted for half of all vacancies across the sector.

As set out in the ‘National Space Strategy in Action’, the space sector needs a strong pipeline of talent, but the supply of skilled and experienced professionals has not kept pace with such a fast-growing industry, which has more than doubled in income over the last decade (from £8.3 billion in 2009 to £17.5 billion in 2021).

That’s why the UK Space Agency plans to invest £15 million in education, skills and outreach over the next two years, a near fivefold increase in support for these activities.

Professor Anu Ojha, Director for Championing Space at the UK Space Agency, said: “Our rapidly evolving space sector is home to ambitious organisations pursuing cutting edge science and technology, and generating significant investment opportunities. We’re committed to catalysing this growth and ensuring a strong pipeline of highly skilled professionals into the sector. The UK Space Agency is investing £15 million through our Inspiration Programme to deliver education, skills, and outreach interventions over the next two years as part of its commitment to delivering a skilled, diverse, and sustainable space sector workforce now and in the future. The valuable information from this report strengthens this work by helping us build a clear picture of the skills landscape across the board, so we know where to focus our support.”

The survey found that, while more larger organisations report experiencing skills gaps than smaller companies (65% and 52%, respectively), this is lower compared to their equivalent organisations across all other business sectors (86%).

However, while the need for AI and machine learning, as well as data analysis, has risen over the last three years, the demand for software and radio frequency engineering experts has decreased.

This is due to both successful recruitment and upskilling within organisations – 72% have provided training in the last year – combined with changing priorities.

Following the rapid advances of AI tools such as ChatGPT, space sector leaders anticipate a shift in skills needs over the next three years, with even higher demand for software and data specialists predicted by almost 41% of organisations.

What does this mean for the future?

When asked about the future, half of respondents expect their space skills needs to change over the next three years, with 70% expecting continued need for AI and machine learning skills, followed by 58% predicting a need for stronger strategy and leadership skills.

In some areas, leaders anticipate a higher demand for certain skills than they are currently experiencing. For instance, nearly a third (30%) foresee a need for stronger cyber security expertise in their workforce in the next three years, compared to the 15% feeling this gap now.

What are the challenges for recruiting these skills?

The study shows that skills gaps are linked to challenges in recruiting, with three quarters (76%) saying they struggle to recruit staff with necessary skills.

Most said that competition from other sectors is the biggest challenge (68%), followed by competition from other space companies (45%).

Retention issues have increased from 52% of large and medium organisations who reported this in 2020 compared to 61% (large) and 71% (medium) reporting this year. This is mostly due to staff poaching (57%) and lower pay levels compared to some other sectors (48%).

How is the space sector addressing this challenge?

Most large space organisations (87%) provide training to help upskill their workforce and are increasing the number of apprenticeships on offer (30% this year compared to 20% in 2020).

Looking across the board of organisation size, almost three quarters (72%) provide training, compared with the average 48% rate across all sectors.

Provisions mostly take the form of on-the-job formal (92%) and informal (84%) learning, with 54% offering external training and 30% offering sponsorship for further study (apprenticeships or degrees).

The UK Space Agency is supporting the growth of the national space workforce by committing £15 million across programmes designed to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue STEM careers, empower teachers to include engaging space learning experiences in the classroom, and help space sector employers open pathways for more people taking their first steps into the industry.