In the May/June issue of Vertiflite, Vertical Flight Society (VFS) executive director Mike Hirschberg sounded a grave warning on the state of the VTOL industry workforce. Specifically, he said that a “war for talent in vertical flight” is being fought of “crisis proportions.”
The commentary referred to a whitepaper released by VFS in early 2020 that found a need for nearly 10,000 additional vertical flight engineers in the next decade. With more companies and governments investing in eVTOL technology, more personnel will be needed to meet this rising demand for engineering talent.
One of the ways that VFS is looking to assist in talent cultivation for the industry is through a series of educational programs. Most recently, the society held the first Design-Build-Vertical Flight (DBVF) Student Competition in an effort to spearhead this. Aimed at college students interested in vertical flight, the competition invited university teams to build a small eVTOL drone and match its performance against the efforts of their peers.
The competition was born when University of Michigan student Parker Trombley got interested in eVTOL technology during his freshman year. Fast forward to 2019. After consulting with faculty in the College of Engineering and building a team, he and his classmates were able to pitch Hirschberg the idea for a collegiate VTOL competition.
“We were all on the same page [after the pitch] and decided to stay in touch,” Trombley said. “Later on in spring 2020, we got the exciting news that VFS was ready to adopt the competition.” At this point, Trombley said that he and his team had conducted mock competitions, drafted rules, and done extensive research on what it would take to make the event happen.
Because of restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition was held virtually. However, in the end, VFS awarded $5,500 in prizes in the competition, including $3,500 to the three winning teams from the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, and The Ohio State University.
For Trombley, he saw this event as a key way to address the problems that are plaguing the VTOL workforce environment. “How are you going to develop a workforce if you don’t develop the students first while they’re still in school?” he said.
Soon enough, Trombley’s idea spread, and other students started to get interested. Adithya Ramaswami and Michael Valcarcel started The Ohio State University’s team, Buckeye Vertical, after attending an advanced air mobility symposium at their school.
“My older brother was actually the one who hosted that symposium, and he connected me with Adithya,” Valcarcel said. “We later found out about the VFS competition and were like, ‘we have to start a team.’” While both students are engineering majors who had a previous interest in aviation, they knew little about eVTOL technology specifically. Starting this team allowed them to get more hands-on experience with the industry, and now both students are considering focusing on eVTOL aircraft in their professional and post-graduate careers, they said.
“We believe that students are already interested in eVTOL aircraft, and so we see Buckeye Vertical as an opportunity to spread awareness and provide more hands-on opportunities to explore the field,” Ramaswami said.
Looking forward, VFS said that it plans to offer a version of this competition every year. The announcement of opportunity for the next iteration will go live this fall.
If Hirschberg’s predictions are correct, these collegiate programs may prove vital to onboarding the next generation of eVTOL engineers, who are already in high demand. For example, Joby Aviation currently has about 240 job postings up on its careers website, more than half of which have the word “engineer” in the title.
Another key assertion of VFS’s workforce study was that, on average, it takes 10 years, $1 billion, and about 1,000 employees to certify a new, competitive VTOL aircraft. In a workforce presentation, Hirschberg argued that 2-3% of this funding amount should be invested in university research each year to support the flow of talented engineers.
The government holds a key role in supporting this pipeline, too. Many Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence (VLRCOEs) exist within universities across the country that help conduct VTOL research, and are funded by the U.S. Army, Navy, and NASA. Currently, the 16 national VLRCOEs are funded by a total of $4.5 million, which is less than what the program started with in the 1980s, according to Hirschberg’s research. As a result, he states that “a tenfold increase in U.S. government funding would go a long way to improve and expand the facilities and research programs and boost the number of engineers graduating with degrees in VTOL research.”
This emphasis on collegiate funding for eVTOL workforce development requires an “all of the above” approach, combining funding and resources from multiple different sources, Hirschberg said. Because of that, Trombley hopes that the DBVF competition will continue to attract more talent.
“I’m really excited to see how this competition develops and grows, and I really hope a lot more schools join in,” he said.