Skills and innovation top the agenda as science minister visits UK’s largest space cluster

Skills and innovation were the focus for George Freeman, minister of state for science, innovation and technology, as he met with Space South Central businesses and academics from across the region on 22 June.

The UK’s largest space cluster, Space South Central, champions Hampshire, Surrey and the Isle of Wight’s thriving space sector, representing more than 130 space-related businesses and its partner universities of Southampton, Portsmouth and Surrey.

During his visit, George Freeman gained first-hand insight into the combined innovation power of the three universities, SMEs and corporations, and toured some of the region’s world-class facilities, before joining representatives from 13 Space South Central businesses and education providers for a Skills Roundtable.

The minister’s visit began at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre, welcomed by vice-chancellor and president Professor Max Lu; members of the Space South Central Advisory Board; and Harshbir Sangha, the UK Space Agency’s missions and capabilities delivery director for Earth observation and low-Earth orbit assets.

Here, he was introduced to some of the newest regional academic/industry initiatives, including the University of Portsmouth’s NASA-inspired Space Mission Incubator and SpaceCraft at the University of Surrey.

SpaceCraft is a new initiative making it easier for organisations to create space-flight equipment and conduct space experiments and enables students and companies to develop practical engineering skills.

A tour of Surrey Space Centre’s labs followed, including Richard Foster-Turner, chief operating officer of Atout, demonstrating their Smart Tank, which has revolutionised how liquids like fuel can be measured in zero gravity.

The science minister then travelled to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) headquarters for the Skills Roundtable. Launched as a University of Surrey spin-out in 1985 to exploit the commercial potential of its novel small satellites, SSTL is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Airbus and a world leader in its field.

The Skills Roundtable enabled the science minister, SMEs and education providers to explore one of the biggest challenges facing the thriving UK space industry. Worth £17.5 billion – up £1 billion in the past year alone – and employing nearly 49,000 people, skills gaps threaten future growth in such a rapidly evolving sector.

The latest UK Space Agency Size and Health of the UK Space Industry report found that although 60% of space-related organisations expect to grow in the next three years, 46% of total respondents predict that recruiting staff will be an obstacle to ongoing commercial success, with 38% concerned about skills shortages.

Discussions at the Skills Roundtable demonstrated the value of education provider and industry collaboration to generate ideas and identify solutions.

Reflecting the ageing population, many businesses present predicted high levels of retirement among older, experienced staff over the coming years, exacerbating their existing skills and recruitment challenges.

However, after education providers expressed their struggle to attract experienced teachers from highly-paid technology or engineering careers, delegates explored how some retirees may be interested in part-time teaching or training roles, equipping a new generation of employees with in-demand skills.

Other topics raised at the Roundtable included the need to increase diversity and make children and workers outside the space industry aware of the vast range of careers available for people of all academic backgrounds.

The need for engineering and computing to be better incorporated into the National Curriculum was also discussed, along with improving the perception of vocational qualifications, the value of ‘hands-on’ skills, and the cost and resource barriers faced by smaller organisations wanting to offer internships or apprenticeships.

With a rare mix of end-to-end product and service capabilities, the Space South Central region’s space industry has benefited from long-standing relationships and collaborations between industry and academia for more than 50 years.

The cluster’s team aims to strengthen and create new academic/industry partnerships to boost innovation and growth and coordinate efforts to tackle skills gaps.

Dr Louise Butt, director of the Space South Central Enterprise Network, said: “Our businesses and education providers are working together to make the Space South Central region the perfect place for starting, developing or switching to a career in the space sector.

“There are so many training opportunities in the area, from apprenticeships for school leavers to postgraduate and professional level courses. We are particularly proud of our industrial and academic collaborations, which are addressing the skills employers need.

“Space South Central and our members are committed to taking positive action to tackle the skills gap, with training and employment opportunities to safeguard future growth locally, nationally and internationally.”

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