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UK space sector needs AI skills to keep pace, says survey

Written by Thu 14 Sep 2023

People with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning skills are in strong demand in the UK space sector.

The UK Space Agency’s Space Sector Skills Survey 2023 found that nearly a quarter (21%) in the industry need AI and machine learning skills. Meanwhile, nearly all space organisations (95%) experience skills-related issues.

Larger organisations reported experiencing skills gaps at a rate of 65%, while smaller companies reported a rate of 52%. However, this is lower than all other business sectors at 86%.

“The valuable information from this report strengthens this work by helping us build a clear picture of the skills landscape across the board, so we know where to focus our support,” said Professor Anu Ojha, Director for Championing Space at the UK Space Agency.

The survey of businesses, government, and academia also revealed that 37% of organisations lacked software and data analysis expertise.

Software and data analysis careers accounted for half of all vacancies in the sector.

Demand for software and radio frequency engineering experts had decreased over the last three years, while AI and data analysis increased.

The decrease was attributed to successful recruitment and upskilling within organisations. A total of 72% have provided training in the last year, combined with changing priorities.

How does this affect the future?

Leaders within the space sector anticipate a shift in skills requirements in the next three years.

Even higher demand for software and data specialists were predicted. Almost 41% of organisations expect this shift which was said to be driven by rapid advancements in AI tools like ChatGPT.

The continued need for AI and machine learning skills is expected by 70% of respondents. A need for stronger strategy and leadership skills is predicted by 58% of leaders.

Leaders expect a greater demand for specific skills than what they currently encounter. Of all respondents, 30% predicted a future need for enhanced cybersecurity expertise in their workforce, while only 15% currently experience this gap.

What are the challenges?

Despite the space sector growing at a rapid rate from £8.3 billion in 2009 to £17.5 billion in 2021, the sector’s supply skilled professionals has not kept pace.

A total of 76% of organisations stated difficulty in hiring employees with the required skills.

Primary challenges in recruiting skilled staff included competition from other sectors (68%) and competition from other companies within the space industry (45%).

A total of 61% of large companies and 71% of medium-sized companies also reported issues with retention, up from 52% in 2020. The primary reasons cited included other firms luring away staff and lower pay compared to other industries.

How is the UK space sector responding?

Most large space organisations (87%) offer training to enhance their workforce’s skills. Apprenticeship opportunities have also expanded, with a 30% increase this year compared to 20% in 2020.

When examining organisations of various sizes, nearly 72% offered training, which surpassed the average of 48% observed across all sectors.

“The sector’s ability to innovate, scale-up, and deliver next generation solutions to today’s problems is being throttled by access to the diverse skill sets it needs to face these challenges,” said Doug Liddle, Chair for the Space Skills Advisory Panel in the survey.

In commitment to the National Space Strategy in Actions promise of building one of the ‘most innovative and attractive space economies in the world’, the UK Space Agency plans to invest a ‘near fivefold increase’ in support for developing the space sector workforce.

The Agency is investing £15 million through its Inspiration Programme to deliver education, skills, and outreach interventions over the next two years.

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Written by Thu 14 Sep 2023

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