NASA vs SpaceX | Houston, we have a hiring problem - who's winning the talent space race?

Houston, we have a hiring problem - who's winning the talent space race?

High salaries and rapid innovation are helping SpaceX and Blue Origin win the space race for attracting prized engineering talent - but NASA’s slow and steady approach also has value as they capitalize on private employer turnover.

According to an article from Bloomberg, elite aerospace and engineering students are prizing jobs at employers like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

These private companies, set on missions like “making humanity multiplanetary” (SpaceX) and “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space” (Blue Origin), can offer better salaries than their public counterparts.

Aerospace engineer positions at SpaceX begin at $95,000 per year, dwarfing NASA’s offering which must adhere to the federal government's General Schedule pay scales. Here, salaries begin at around $55,000 for engineers with bachelor's degrees working at the Kennedy Space Center, based in Florida.

Looking for more

Graduates, including aerospace and engineering majors, from America’s top colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), are eager to sign up to the comparative new kids on the aerospace block.

Talent acquisition teams at SpaceX and Blue Origin “know people want to work for them,” William Putaansuu, an aerospace engineering undergraduate at GIT tells Bloomberg.

Early careers talent gravitate to SpaceX and Blue Origin

The aerospace economy is booming. Over the next five years, the industry is set to grow to a value of $770billion. As a result, aerospace engineer jobs are projected to grow twice as fast as the average overall U.S. job growth from 2022 to 2032.

This bodes well for the private space operations companies. Blue Origin had over 1,500 open job postings in mid-March, and SpaceX had more than 1,100. Both companies are already home to over 10,000 employees but are intensifying early careers hiring from said colleges.

Daniel Hastings, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, tells Bloomberg it is the rapid growth of the industry that “attracts the younger people these days."

Unlike years gone by, when older hands like NASA had a monopoly on the stream of graduate talent, new private employers are providing compelling competition. And thanks to novel college recruiting strategies, it’s the likes of SpaceX who are coming out on top.

Where new space start-ups are directly targeting campus robotics teams and rocket clubs, screening candidates on heavily technical questions, established industry giants contracted by NASA such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. are pursuing tried and trusted careers fairs, highlighting the benefits of their programs, and screening based on personality.

Slow and steady isn’t winning the space race - yet

It would seem, for now, that space start-ups like SpaceX and Blue Origin appear to have the upper hand. Ann Richmond, Deputy Director of Talent Services at NASA, admits to Bloomberg that as private space companies skyrocket in headcount, NASA has "a little bit of a tougher time competing with them salary-wise.”

However, whilst the private start-ups can offer eye-watering salaries and celebrity-entrepreneur CEOs, there are apparent downsides.

Former workers at SpaceX and Blue Origin have lodged lawsuits and made allegations over safety issues, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, wrongful termination, discriminatory hiring practices, retaliation, and more.

Moreover, in the pursuit of speed as the space start-ups attempt to put more humans on the Moon and make planetary space travel as usual as a jaunt to Paris, demands reach the stratosphere, and the mental, physical, and emotional workload for workers stacks up.

Prospective candidates, including students, are aware of this. “You're doing this cool thing," notes Griffin Rahn, an aerospace Masters student at GIT. "You're also going to be like really worked to death… I think a lot of people when they're looking for jobs, they're not nearly focused enough on what an actual position is. They're much more worried about the place that they're at.”

This universe ain’t is big enough for the both of us

Richmond believes the offering that draws many workers away from space start-ups to older firms is the prospect of better work-life balance, with recruits citing burnout as a reason for leaving their previous private employers.

NASA’s plan, according to Richmond, is “playing the long game,” adopting a slow and steady approach with offers such as federal retirement and health benefits.

“We see some very savvy applicants that are really looking at the total compensation package,” Richmond explains to Bloomberg.

However, although there is healthy competition in the modern space race, Richmond argues there is room for both models, offering employees different value depending on what they want from their careers. "It's more and more common that we have people moving back and forth between NASA and SpaceX and NASA and Blue Origin," Richmond says, adding that NASA enjoys a healthy partnership with space startups.

Putaansuu also describes the turnover rate at SpaceX and Blue Origin as “insanely high,” but echoes Richmond’s observation, saying that many workers move because “there are so many offers out there."

Whilst the prospect of working for Musk or Bezos in a high-pay, high-intensity role has its gravitational pull, legacy space operations like NASA still offer employees the benefits that can turn their heads.

As the aerospace economy booms, it appears there is space for two very different employee value propositions after all.

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