In this third com­men­tary on a series about the work­force in the eVTOL indus­try, Mike Hirschberg, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor at the Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety, talks about the impor­tance of diver­si­ty.

It fol­lows on from the need for an addi­tion­al 10,000 engi­neers this decade and as Mike puts it, the only way to win this war is if every­one wins.

Much has been said and debat­ed about diver­si­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the US over the past year. While this is often wrapped up in dis­cus­sions of dis­crim­i­na­tion and social jus­tice — very impor­tant issues for soci­ety to tack­le — this com­men­tary is not about that. VFS is only a small cog in the epic wheels of the world’s civ­i­liza­tions and, while “we punch above our weight” and often have an out­sized impact, we do that by apply­ing our ener­gies with a laser focus to spe­cif­ic issues where we see the poten­tial to cre­ate a tip­ping point. Diver­si­ty in ver­ti­cal flight is now exact­ly this issue.

The Tal­ent Cri­sis

The ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing (VTOL) indus­try is expe­ri­enc­ing a tal­ent cri­sis. The influx of near­ly $5B for devel­op­ment of elec­tric VTOL air­craft just in the first half of 2021 (see “Turn­ing Point,” pg. 66), has cre­at­ed a war for tal­ent. Large num­bers of high­ly expe­ri­enced engi­neers and tech­nol­o­gists are being hired away from tra­di­tion­al heli­copter com­pa­nies at the same time that they try­ing to staff up to meet the demands of the mul­ti­ple Future Ver­ti­cal Lift (FVL) pro­grams. 

A study by VFS last year indi­cat­ed that 10,000 addi­tion­al engi­neers in ver­ti­cal flight will be need­ed over the next decade to meet the simul­ta­ne­ous demands of ramp­ing up devel­op­ment of mil­i­tary rotor­craft plus elec­tric VTOL air­craft (see How­ev­er, the tal­ent pool is not large enough to meet these demands.

Clear­ly, for 1,000 addi­tion­al engi­neers to enter the VTOL work­force every year, some­thing must be done to increase the pipeline. It’s not just divert­ing exist­ing engi­neers to ver­ti­cal flight, it’s about attract­ing and retain­ing as-yet untapped sources. 

As dis­cussed in last issue’s Com­men­tary (“Work­force: Win­ning the War for Tal­ent,” Ver­ti­flite, May/June 2021), there are no easy fix­es, but a num­ber of ini­tia­tives by indus­try and gov­ern­ment can begin to address the prob­lem. The key aspects of reme­dies prof­fered last issue were: increase uni­ver­si­ty fund­ing for VTOL engi­neer­ing; gen­er­ate inter­est in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) by har­ness­ing excite­ment of VTOL to increase the pipeline; increase diver­si­ty out­reach; high­light under­rep­re­sent­ed tal­ent to attract poten­tial can­di­dates; and improve inclu­siv­i­ty to retain diverse employ­ees.

The Lack of Diver­si­ty in Aero­space

Aero­space is one of the least diverse indus­tries in the US — Deloitte’s web­site says that 88% of aero­space engi­neers in Amer­i­ca are men, despite com­pris­ing only 50% of the pop­u­la­tion. Based on 2019 work­force cen­sus data of 134,000 employ­ees, 72% of aero­space engi­neers are White (non-His­pan­ic), com­pared to 61% of the pop­u­la­tion.

Rep­re­sent­ing 11.3% of aero­space engi­neers are Asians Amer­i­cans, com­pared to 6% of the pop­u­la­tion. Black aero­space engi­neers made up only 6% of the work­force vs. 12% of the pop­u­la­tion. His­pan­ic aero­space engi­neers are only 1.5% of the work­force, but near­ly 5% of the pop­u­la­tion. 

Avi­a­tion Week con­ducts an annu­al sur­vey of the entire aero­space and defense (A&D) seg­ment, rep­re­sent­ing 460,000 A&D work­ers. The “2020 Work­force Study,” released in Sep­tem­ber 2020, found women com­prised 24% of the A&D work­force, com­pared with 47% of the over­all Amer­i­can indus­tri­al work­force and 31% in the “Tech” indus­try. The work­force was iden­ti­fied as 27% eth­nic minori­ties, includ­ing 5.9% Black, 7.6% His­pan­ic and 11.1% Asian. 

Notably, the annu­al sur­vey found slight increas­es in the per­cent­age of new hires of eth­nic minori­ties, with 8% of new hires being Black and 11% His­pan­ic, sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than the cur­rent per­cent­age of the work­force. How­ev­er, there was not a notice­able dif­fer­ence in women hir­ing (remain­ing at 24%), but the num­ber of women stu­dents and young pro­fes­sion­als did see a small improve­ment, to 29%.

The sur­vey results mean that the aero­space community’s years of out­reach to under­rep­re­sent­ed demo­graph­ics is hav­ing an incre­men­tal effect, but there is still a long way to go to before the A&D sec­tor reflects the over­all pop­u­la­tion.

Diver­si­ty Wins

Win­ning with Diver­si­ty & Inclu­sion

  • Increase the tal­ent pipeline
  • Increase cre­ativ­i­ty and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty
  • Improve finan­cial per­for­mance
  • Avoid legal and work­force costs of dis­crim­i­na­tion  

The US has hun­dreds of years of his­to­ry to over­come in mak­ing the aero­space work­force — and ver­ti­cal flight in par­tic­u­lar — more reflec­tive of its cit­i­zens. It will take many years of inten­tion­al effort, but com­bin­ing everyone’s efforts will pay div­i­dends — lit­er­al­ly. Accord­ing to a May 2020 report by McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny, “Diver­si­ty wins: How inclu­sion mat­ters,” if a com­pa­ny has at least 30% women in top lead­er­ship roles, it will finan­cial­ly out­per­form its male-dom­i­nat­ed com­pe­ti­tion by 48%. 

In addi­tion, a lack of gen­der diver­si­ty can lead to sex­u­al harass­ment inci­dences or even tox­ic work cul­tures, cost­ing com­pa­nies mil­lions of dol­lars a year in absen­teeism, employ­ee turnover, low pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, legal fees and law­suits. Work­places that are hos­tile for women (or any minor­i­ty) or have a cor­po­rate cul­ture of tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty are often not noticed by the over­whelm­ing­ly male pop­u­la­tion because it often hap­pens to women who are alone or out­num­bered.

Hav­ing a greater per­cent­age of women in an organ­i­sa­tion — and lis­ten­ing to them — can weed out offend­ers. Con­se­quences for offen­sive behav­iour will help retain female tal­ent, pro­vide a safe work­place and fos­ter inclu­sion, which is essen­tial for cre­at­ing a sta­tis­ti­cal tip­ping point in diver­si­ty.

Accord­ing to an arti­cle by Inc. Mag­a­zine in 2018, a US gov­ern­ment study found that 60% of women say they expe­ri­ence “unwant­ed sex­u­al atten­tion, sex­u­al coer­cion, sex­u­al­ly crude con­duct, or sex­ist com­ments” in the work­place.

Mean­while, 90% of employ­ees who expe­ri­ence harass­ment nev­er file a for­mal com­plaint; 75% nev­er even com­plain to their employ­ers. A 2017 Wash­ing­ton Post poll showed that 54% of female employ­ees said they expe­ri­enced sex­u­al harass­ment but 95% of the men go unpun­ished, even though 56% of the men agreed that the sex­u­al harass­ment was going unpun­ished. Clear­ly there’s a prob­lem. 

Obvi­ous­ly, for many of the estab­lished aero­space com­pa­nies — with lega­cies that often stretch back a cen­tu­ry — it will take a lot of effort over many years to make a sig­nif­i­cant change in their work­force. It starts with a vision of diver­si­ty, as evi­denced by the imagery on the hir­ing pages of many VFS cor­po­rate mem­bers, and requires sus­tained out­reach — to diverse employ­ees, minor­i­ty-serv­ing uni­ver­si­ties and pre-col­lege STEM sup­port to under­served com­mu­ni­ties. 

How­ev­er, hun­dreds of new com­pa­nies are being start­ed in the bur­geon­ing elec­tric VTOL field, now often referred to as advanced air mobil­i­ty (AAM). This cre­ates a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to build teams that fea­ture a much greater per­cent­age of women in the work­force, and par­tic­u­lar­ly in lead­er­ship roles.

In fact, a healthy work cul­ture begins with a startup’s “cap table,” which shows a com­pa­ny’s equi­ty own­er­ship cap­i­tal split with the founders and ear­ly share­hold­ers. If women are not includ­ed ear­ly on, a com­pa­ny will like­ly strug­gle with diver­si­ty when it grows.

More­over, one could argue that it is uneth­i­cal (or at least unre­al­is­tic) for founders to expect hir­ing man­agers to solve the diver­si­ty prob­lem when they them­selves have only hired peo­ple who look like them. Cor­po­rate cul­ture comes from the top and trick­les down, so hav­ing a diverse cap table is crit­i­cal.

Sim­i­lar­ly, estab­lished and start­up com­pa­nies should look at their exec­u­tive team. Those with­out diverse lead­er­ship will find it dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a diverse enough envi­ron­ment to fos­ter inclu­sion and a safe, pro­duc­tive work­place. 

One key result of the Avi­a­tion Week study was “The abil­i­ty to recruit and retain the high­est qual­i­ty of tal­ent is crit­i­cal to the indus­try.” One of our PhD mem­bers not­ed that she had worked at her new com­pa­ny for three months before she was in a meet­ing with anoth­er woman. Some women in aero­space nev­er get to work with anoth­er woman. Women leave aero­space at high­er rates than men, but reten­tion can be improved by cre­at­ing more inclu­sive work­forces.

Near­ly every suc­cess­ful team is based on diver­si­ty. A soc­cer team can’t win with every­one play­ing as for­wards, an orches­tra wouldn’t be suc­cess­ful by only hir­ing per­cus­sion­ists, and a design team com­prised only of engi­neers with expe­ri­ence in empen­nages wouldn’t come up with a very good air­craft. 

Diver­si­ty of thought is essen­tial to max­imise prob­lem solv­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty. Hav­ing dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences and dif­fer­ent world views are key for inno­va­tion. Greater diver­si­ty and inclu­sion can facil­i­tate employ­ees being com­fort­able in a work­place and engen­der greater inno­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. 

Many star­tups over­look how crit­i­cal diver­si­ty is. But because com­pa­nies with women lead­ers are more finan­cial­ly suc­cess­ful, it has become a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage, both for recruit­ing and the bot­tom line. Many com­pa­nies are on the hunt for women to lead their teams.


VFS is look­ing at how we can help sup­port the pro­ject­ed hir­ing demands by pro­mot­ing diver­si­ty in the ver­ti­cal flight indus­try through an ini­tia­tive dubbed Diver­si­FLY.

Danielle McLean, the CEO of Hap­py Take­off, is con­sult­ing for VFS as the Advi­sor for Work­force and Diver­si­ty. As an aero­space engi­neer in the indus­try, she has expe­ri­enced first-hand the prob­lems that com­pa­nies face in attract­ing and retain­ing tal­ent. 

Diver­si­FLY is an ini­tia­tive focused on grow­ing the VTOL work­force through diver­si­ty, equi­ty and inclu­sion. We are kick­ing off a reg­u­lar series of webi­na­rs to dis­cuss chal­lenges, oppor­tu­ni­ties and lessons learned, in an effort to address the tal­ent cri­sis in ver­ti­cal flight. 

The sub­ject of diver­si­ty, equi­ty and inclu­sion — not to men­tion com­bat­ing sex­u­al harass­ment in the work­place — is an uncom­fort­able sub­ject. But we have to get com­fort­able with being uncom­fort­able if we want to solve these fun­da­men­tal issues that are hold­ing back not just the progress of soci­ety at large, but ver­ti­cal flight advance­ments in par­tic­u­lar.

It’s not enough to just be not racist or sex­ist; we need to iden­ti­fy when racism and sex­ism hap­pen and stop it. We can’t solve inequal­i­ty and harass­ment by turn­ing a blind eye — or fail­ing to open our eyes to see what is hap­pen­ing. 

In May, I was part of an online dis­cus­sion host­ed by the Cana­di­an Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty (CAAM) Con­sor­tium on Women in AAM. Of the 22 speak­ers — includ­ing two mem­bers of the VFS Board of Direc­tors, Chan­tal Bouch­er and Anna Kominik, and sev­er­al oth­er VFS mem­bers — I was the only male rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

It was slight­ly uncom­fort­able for me, but for gen­der diver­si­ty and inclu­sion, men need to engage and stretch beyond their com­fort zone. Men are the major­i­ty of the prob­lem and must be the major­i­ty of the solu­tion.

As dis­cussed last issue, address­ing the tal­ent cri­sis requires an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach. The ver­ti­cal flight com­mu­ni­ty must invest more time and effort into long-term pay­offs of increas­ing the over­all pro­duc­tion of engi­neer­ing tal­ent and attract them to the VTOL indus­try, as well as take the steps nec­es­sary to fos­ter diver­si­ty and inclu­sion in the work­place.

The only way to win the war for tal­ent is if every­one wins.

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the July/August edi­tion of the Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety’s Ver­ti­flite mag­a­zine. For more infor­ma­tion about Ver­ti­flite, click here.