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Skills drought leaves Gulf aerospace ambitions on dark side of moon

Alfred Worden is just one of 21 people who have ever been to the moon.
DUBAI: Among the throngs of executives arriving at the Dubai Airshow last week, few will have recognized the grey-haired guy in the green US flying jacket strolling among the stands.
Col. Alfred Worden, at 85, was older than most at the exhibition – but as the command module pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission, he is just one of 21 people who have ever been to the moon.
He arrived in the UAE four days before the event began to talk to school kids in Abu Dhabi with the aim of inspiring young minds to think about a career in aerospace.
He believes it is vital to encourage more children in the region to take up so-called STEM courses – science, technology, engineering and maths.
“Because that is the future of the human race,” he said at the event.
More specifically, it also represents the future of the region’s nascent aerospace industry, which in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is part of a broader push to add high-value jobs beyond the oil and gas sectors.
Top executives from aviation companies attending the Dubai Airshow have highlighted the challenge facing them as they seek to a build world-class industry in the region but are thwarted both by a lack of school leavers and graduates in STEM subjects as well as a shortage of vocational training in practical aviation engineering skills.
In the US of the 1960s and early ’70s, astronauts were the rock stars of their era — inspiring many kids to focus on that career from an early age. The average age on mission control when Worden went to the moon was 26.
But for a generation that has grown up without the excitement of the moon missions, it has become harder to attract youngsters into the sector.
It is a problem that also extends to the wider aviation industry and is even more acute in the Gulf states where the prospect of well paid jobs in the public sector has historically encouraged a career in government-related jobs for many school leavers.
At a space conference at the Dubai Airshow, UAE higher education minister Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al-Falasi acknowledged the impact that talking to a real astronaut had on school kids in the Emirates.
He told Worden: “The amount of influence you have with school children is worth more than five ministers put together.”
Since establishing a space agency as well as a mission to Mars, the UAE has been able to attract more school leavers into relevant degree programs – but as in neighboring Saudi Arabia, it has been a challenge to build a pool of local skills big enough to match the requirement in industry.
“We have seen an increase of students in STEM – but specifically in technology and engineering – the science and maths parts or STEM have been lagging,” said the minister. “We have far more engineers than scientists.”
Saudi aviation executives also bemoan the shortage of graduates with the skills needed to build the aviation and aerospace sector that is a central plank of the Kingdom’s economic vision.
Yahya Homoud Al-Ghoraibi, the CEO of Riyadh-based Alsalam Aerospace Industries, believes the real problem is not identifying the graduates but finding the people with the necessary vocational training to perform the work.
“This is a challenging item because we are looking at a high number of people to support the vision,” he told Arab News. “In the Kingdom, we have a lot of engineer graduates — the shortage is in the technical background.”
Ziyad Abdulaziz Almohaimeed, the CEO of Riyadh-based Mas Aviation Services, agreed that there were not currently enough graduates with the skills that the industry needs
“There is a lot of pressure on all companies, especially in defense and aviation, to establish local capability,”
Those localization targets become ever more challenging in industries such as aerospace and aviation when there so many companies chasing so few graduates with the required degrees and training.

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