A Mexican Aerospace Educational SystemBy Carlos Robles | Mon, 09/28/2020 - 13:03
One of the pillars of any industry is the education and availability of human resources. The aerospace sector started in Mexico close to 15 years ago and it based its start, ramp up and initial growth on a very strong industrial culture and skills coming mainly from the automotive industry. However, we are facing a strategically crucial moment as the need to develop resources for the future is one of the growing pains for the aerospace community. The slowdown of industrial activity globally due to the COVID-19 outbreak gave us some extra time to fully understand the needs but more importantly, to align players and interests with the objective of setting a strategic plan to develop educational programs to cover future specialized and well-paid aerospace job openings.
There are very good universities and technical training centers in Mexico. Some of them, such as UANL, IPN or UNAM, have very strong engineering programs and are focused on developing good research and development skills. Some of them were also pioneering in aerospace programs in Mexico, and most specialized Mexican engineers studied at one of these universities, with only a few studying abroad. With the booming of the aerospace industry in Mexico, many universities have shown interest in developing new programs but, in my experience, often without understanding the industry and its needs, sometimes without enough economical resources or worse, with a lack of specialized teachers to transfer knowledge. The issue has been either good intentions with no resources or lots of resources with no clue.
It might not be easy but it is not impossible, as UNAQ in Queretaro has demonstrated by being the human resources feeder of some of the more important companies in Mexico and an international example of the success that can be achieved when the triple helix is able to work with a common objective moved by the power of synergies. Another good example is UPAEP, which in a very short period of time put a satellite in orbit and is now the most advanced educational entity in the race to conquer the new space. For sure, there are more successful initiatives; I am just mentioning a couple of examples I am familiar with.
The problem, in my view, is that some sparks of success will not be enough in the near future to provide the right skills and the right quantity of human resources for the aerospace industry, which continues to grow not only in number of jobs but in complexity. A national education system has to be able to develop the future workers at all levels of the different companies in the country. It will not come from a few universities being successful; it has to be the outcome of a strategical plan set by industry, educational institutions, government and supporting entities. It will require understanding, alignment, no hidden agendas, and willingness to sacrifice personal and political interests in pursuit of a common objective. Moreover, once that plan is defined, it has to be the only possible route to take by whoever wants to collaborate in the execution, as so far, the weakness of the system is the lack of alignment, synergies and collaboration.
Certainly, there is no magic recipe for success but there are some things that must be done and some others that should be avoided in order to define, start, grow and sustain an educational system capable of providing skilled resources for the aerospace industry. From my point of view, there are a few very basic key points that should be considered in drafting the strategy.
Companies should not neglect the fact that most of the expertise in the country does not come from schools, it comes from specialized workers who need to transfer their knowledge. This needs to be incentivized and promoted. In other countries, the dual education model in which people go to school to learn while at the same time working at companies to practice has proved to be very efficient and able to create a critical mass of knowledge and people to boost the supply of talent. It means a deep commitment from the industry to free up resources to invest in education over the long term. The investment will come back but it takes time and often, that is hard for companies to recognize.
Educational institutions at any level should avoid developing programs because they have the money and it is good for marketing reasons. Many unsuccessful stories started by developing an engineering plan disconnected from what the industry is doing. An air tunnel is sexy but nobody in Mexico needs it, for now at least. Companies and institutions need to be closer, with a strong open communication to understand each other’s needs, capabilities and challenges and to share physical and human resources. Aerospace is very expensive to develop in terms of the required infrastructure to teach and train, but many companies can easily donate used materials and space that cannot be used for certification purposes but that are very functional for teaching. A retired plane is a good example.
An aerospace educational system needs to have a strategical agenda with strong leadership and key players being actively involved but due to the complexity, challenge and high demand of resources, the key word is collaboration. Institutions, government and companies in the industry need to find a way to share resources and knowledge, integrate multidisciplinary teams from all locations and profiles toward the same objective, launch joint complex projects involving each player’s strength to cover for overall weaknesses and really be willing to collaborate, collaborate, and collaborate with no hidden agendas. That is the challenge in this country.
These are uncertain times in many ways but in some ways, the timing is perfect to review what has been done so far in the educational system feeding the Mexican aerospace business environment. We need to reflect and understand what has been successful and why, in order to replicate and strengthen it. But we also need to aim for a system that carries the industry into the future by providing a competitive edge for companies. At the same time and equally important, the opportunity to access good training and development for the professionals of the future will provide better job opportunities with a positive impact on the economy and for many thousands of Mexicans and their families. It would be an all-win situation if we can align every player.