VP Kamala Harris calls to diversify US space workforce

kamala harris surrounded by american flags at a podium, spacesuit to the side
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at NASA's Johnson Space Center on Sept. 9, 2022, the same day she chaired a meeting of the U.S. National Space Council. (Image credit: Adam Davis/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Space diversity will get a boost this fall from a new White House initiative.

Earlier this month, the White House announced a pilot program to increase training in the space sector with numerous space companies, led by Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. (Other participants include SpaceX, Amazon and Rocket Lab, to name a few.)

"These pilot programs will help thousands of traditionally underrepresented workers in the space field learn the skills and access the opportunities they need to take on 21st-century space jobs," White House officials said in a fact sheet released on Sept. 9. The training will be centered in three locations: Florida's Space Coast, the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Southern California. Few other details are available at this time.

The new push aims to bring more diversity to the space workforce through a wider swath of educational institutions beyond the Ivy League and other rich engineering and science schools. Examples include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, minority servicing institutions, community colleges and trade/vocational schools, White House officials said.

Related: Space has a diversity problem — and big institutions like universities can do something about it

In remarks at a meeting of the National Space Council, held Sept. 9 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Harris emphasized that jobs in the space sector don't necessarily require four-year degrees (which are often a barrier to diverse communities due to the investments of money and time involved).

"There are thousands more jobs for technical workers — good-paying jobs that often do not require a four-year degree, but are essential to our space program. These jobs are just waiting to be filled," said Harris, who chairs the council.

Examples of positions requiring only a high school diploma, the White House said in its roadmap, include welders, non-destructive testers, machinists, inspectors, industrial machinery mechanics and assemblers. An associate's degree from community college opens up such positions as avionics technician and quality control analyst. Salaries for such jobs start at around $35,000 a year but may go much higher.

Related: NASA, ESA experts weigh in on diversity and inclusion in space

Vice President Kamala Harris signs a bracket that will fly to the moon on the Artemis 3 Orion spacecraft while touring NASA's Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 29, 2022.  (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

U.S. space industry employment is at a 10-year high of 151,797 people, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 data parsed by the Space Foundation. That's up nearly 20% from 2016. (The numbers, however, track key job sectors linked with space rather than the space industry as a separate segment.)

Many of the companies participating in the new White House initiative are also signatories of the Space Workforce 2030 pledge, which promises workforce increases in women and underrepresented populations in the coming decade. The pledge was released in April at the 37th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Current statistics on space diversity are not widely available, and collection methodology is somewhat patchy. That said, some efforts from a directorate at NASA and the United Kingdom's Space Skills Alliance suggest that women make up around 30% of the space workforce and people of color make up less than 32%, depending on the statistics set used.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace