Workforce Diversity and Development in the UAS Industry

The first step in addressing an issue requires understanding it. Recent studies from Deloitte, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and Boeing indicate that the aerospace industry is one of the least diverse industries in the United States.
By Dawn Zoldi | September 14, 2022

The first step in addressing an issue requires understanding it. Recent studies from Deloitte, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and Boeing indicate that the aerospace industry is one of the least diverse industries in the United States. The first-of-its-kind diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) survey that focused on uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) and advanced air mobility (AAM), validated these same disparities in the UAS/AAM workforce. Here we explore the extent of the DEI problem in the uncrewed aviation industry and why DEI matters to its future. We also provide valuable insights into how one company tackles the problem, and what it takes to make positive changes in your own business.

Houston...We Have a Problem
Until recently, all workforce composition research and reporting focused on the aerospace industry in general, or the aerospace and defense industry specifically.

For example, AIA’s annual workforce survey in 2021 noted that men occupied more than 75% of the positions in the aerospace and defense sector. One of the largest U.S. companies in that sector, Boeing, reported that men occupied 77.1% of its overall workforce and 83.4% of its engineer positions. The majority of the company's employees (68.8%) also identified as white.

While this data loosely informs the current UAS/AAM sector, it fails to squarely address it. Last summer, Women And Drones - P3 Tech Consulting (P3 Tech) and the Diversity Development Network of Canada (DDNC) remedied the UAS/AAM diversity data gap when they jointly launched the first UAS/AAM DEI Survey.

Survey responses indicated that even though a majority of organizations included diverse groups across their employee base, the white racial and female gender groups represented the highest proportion of employees. The white racial group occupied the highest concentration (at 50 to 100% levels); women ranked the next highest (at 25 to 49% levels).

Comparing these lower organizational levels with leadership positions revealed interesting trends. In addition to dominating the overall employee base, the white racial group dominated the majority of leadership positions (75 to 100% levels). In terms of leadership positions, the LGBTQ community ranked second highest, just slightly above the female group.

The data showed that individuals who identified as Asian, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, Native American or Alaskan Native, remained significantly underrepresented at the top organizational tiers in comparison to their actual strength numbers.

Individuals in the black or African racial identification category were the most underrepresented group at every organizational level.

“We knew we had a diversity problem in the industry,” noted Women And Drones CEO Sharon Rossmark. She continued, “We wanted to understand the extent of the problem and gauge industry interest in changing it. Our survey and report scoped both of these things.”

And Yet Diversity Matters
Diverse organizations succeed. A 2020 McKinsey & Company report encompassing 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies stated, “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.” Diversity in the C-Suite, according to the McKinsey report, resulted in a 25% increased likelihood of above-average earnings.

In 2018, Inc.com reported on a Boston Consulting Group study of women-run companies. Despite the fact that investors were less likely to support women entrepreneurs with their dollars, for every dollar raised, women-run start-ups generated 78 cents in revenue, compared to 31 cents for men. The report noted, “By that measure, if investors had put the same amount of capital into women-run companies as they did into the ones run by guys, they would have helped generate an additional $85 million in revenue.”

These are just a few data-based indicators that validate the importance of DEI to business success. A study by Vertical Flight Society (VFS) indicates diversity may actually be existential to the AAM and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) industry. VFS, the world's only international technical society for engineers, scientists and innovators working to advance vertical flight technology, noted 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. The current talent pool and pipeline is simply not large enough to meet these demands.

Diversity, according to an OpEd by VFS Executive Director Mike Hirschberg, is the answer. “The ability to recruit and retain the highest quality of talent is critical to the industry,” Hirshberg wrote. “Addressing the talent crisis requires an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach,” he continued. “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.”
The UAS/AAM DEI Survey validated that, like Hirschberg, industry participants overwhelmingly agreed that DEI matters. More importantly, it showed that they truly care about it.

Almost 75% of survey respondents said they felt moderate to extreme concern about the lack of DEI in the UAS/AAM industry in general. More than 80% of respondents expressed concern, ranging from moderate to extreme, about the lack of DEI in their own UAS/AAM or UAS/AAM-related businesses or organizations.

Best DEI Practices
On a positive note, the UAS/AAM DEI Survey also indicated that many UAS and AAM businesses and organizations also care about DEI. They already employ a variety of tools to recruit and retain diverse talent.

Marlene Diels, President of DDNC, explained the purpose of seeking feedback on what companies are doing in this realm, as well as what employees desire.  "We hoped, through this DEI Survey report, to do more than set the bar in establishing the industry DEI benchmark. We also sought to provide real understanding on what businesses and organizations are doing to foster DEI and whether or not this is working,” she explained. The project achieved those ends.

Companies, according to responses, focused more on formal programs to retain diverse talent. But employees want a personal touch. The survey contained a write-in “Other Retention Tools” comment box that garnered over 3,000 responses. These ranged from company activities and environment; compensation; promotion and career mobility; benefits; recognition; training; team building and mentorship; and other best practices. The three main drivers of retention, according to the write-ins were: how the company treats its people, how the company compensates them, and the actual workplace environment (#1).

What does this mean? DEI is a leadership issue. To attract and keep diverse employees, a company must simply treat them right.

A Case Study: One Company Taking the Lead
Skydio has established a strong reputation as a leading manufacturer of autonomous and cyber-secure American UAS. What many may not know is that the company also leads the way on fostering DEI by treating people right.

Anna Wiesenthal-Birch, the company’s Vice President of People Operations, leads Skydio’s efforts to build its diverse teams and talent pipelines. She also creates the programs, practices, and accessible physical work spaces to retain them. To Wiesenthal-Birch, treating people right requires a consistent focus on their personal and professional development. Below are just three Skydio does this:

Invest in People
At Skydio, employee personal and professional development starts on day one, with a drone. “We want all our employees to learn and grow,” Wiesenthal-Birch explained. “We believe this starts by investing in our people to provide them with foundational knowledge about drones, and specifically Skydio drones.” Every employee gets a Skydio S2+ when they join the team. The company calls this “Drone on Loan.” Employees are literally up and flying within their first week on the job.

The company also hosts monthly team-building gatherings called “First Friday Fly Day.” “We all know that flying, especially for newer pilots, can be intimidating,” said Wiesenthal-Birch. “So we host this monthly gathering where we all get together for a few hours to fly at a local park.”

Skydio also encourages all of its 500 plus employees to get Part 107 certified. It supports employees to obtain this license through its own internal training courses, study groups, and by defraying the costs of training materials and testing. “A support system blossoms around our people and they succeed,” says Wiesenthal-Birch. To date, roughly 15% of all Skydio employees have obtained their license.

Support Inclusive Groups
Skydio has created a number of employee resource groups or communities. Given the success of these groups, it plans to foster the development of more.

The Skydiennes group, Skydio’s women’s community, officially became its first employee resource group a few months ago. It started organically as a way for the women of Skydio to come together and have a space to talk about what they were working on, share their stories and provide a support system. The community started with ten participants back in 2019 and has grown along with the company, which now boasts over 500 employees. Among other things, the group holds a monthly Skydienne Coffee Chat, an informal opportunity for the community to forge connections. 

In 2021, on International Women’s Day, Skydio also kicked off a specialized Part 107 program for its Skydiennes with a fly day in Half Moon Bay, California. To date, approximately 65% of the women who participated went on to partake in the additional Part 107 training offered.

In addition to its women’s group, Skydio has a robust veteran’s community, comprising more than half of its Federal team. As one of the first Department of Defense-recognized “Blue UAS'' companies, it provides significant support to U.S. military and coalition partners. Building on the successes of the Skydiennes, Weisenthal-Birch reported that Skydio will be supporting the creation of additional employee resource groups for its veteran community and others in the coming months.

Serve Community Together
Understanding the mission, and spreading the passion involved in it on a personal level, provides another outlet for employee excitement and growth. “We do a ton of work in the community,” explained Mira Marquez, who leads Skydio’s social impact efforts. Marquez leads other employees in helping to build current and future generations of drone enthusiasts.

Last year,  Skydio partnered with Wounded Eagle and Semper Fi America’s Fund to award the first Skydio Vehicle Scholarships to disabled and injured veterans. Both of these organizations focus on creating career pathways and providing educational opportunities for wounded vets through training, networking, and mentorship.

The company also focuses on educating and connecting with community youth. According to Marquez, one of the most powerful things we all can do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion is help build the next generation of leaders. Skydio employees directly connect with students, ranging from elementary to high school, both in the classroom and out in the field. The goal: to show them the possibilities in tech careers and the drone industry. “Our drones are pretty cool. Just spending a few minutes demoing what our technology can do creates a pretty captive audience,” said Marquez. 

This summer, the Skydio Team supported Pre-Flight Aviation Camps for middle school girls interested in aviation, in both Colorado and Texas. They donated drones and also had their own Skydiennes on the ground helping the girls learn how to launch and control the drones.

Earlier this year, the company hosted a Youth Fly Day in partnership with San Francisco’s ICA Cristo Rey All Girls Academy. The 75 freshman students learned about everything from the design of a drone, how they are built, use cases, and the basics of operating a drone. The day ended with a panel discussion where women from across Skydio shared their stories. After the event, 30% of the students who attended said they were newly interested in pursuing a career within technology and drones. Skydio is continuing its partnership with ICA through its Corporate Work-Study program, offering their students the ability to apply and work with Skydio for the upcoming academic year.

Taking Businesses Higher
DEI is important to organizational success. The 2021 UAS/AAM DEI Survey validated a lack of diversity, particularly across industry C-Suites, the dire need for talent, the widespread concern about this and desire for change. So now what?

Businesses can use this information to start their own transformational journey. Emulate some of these best practices. Seek additional information on DEI-related programming, skills-development training and initiatives, including other best practices and programs. “We are ready to now do the work needed to impact change, together,” said Rossmark.

Creating a diverse, cooperative and cohesive workplace takes effort. Culture change starts at the top of any organization. The payoffs include increased employee satisfaction, company innovation, and profitability. Build a bigger and better tomorrow, today.

For more information about diversity, equity and inclusion in the UAS/AAM industry, contact:
Dawn Zoldi: [email protected]
Marlene Diels: [email protected]
Sharon Rossmark: [email protected]
womenanddrones.com

For additional information about
Skydio’s People Ops, contact:
https://www.skydio.com/

Author: Dawn M.K. Zoldi
P3 Tech Consulting
[email protected]

Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the U.S. Air Force. She is the CEO & Founder of P3 Tech Consulting and an internationally recognized expert on uncrewed aircraft system law and policy. Zoldi contributes to several magazines and hosts popular tech podcasts. In 2022, she was listed as an advanced mobility leader in MOVE America’s “The Disruptors” white paper, received the Airwards People’s Choice - Industry Impactor Award, was recognized as one of the Top Women to Follow on LinkedIn and listed in the eVTOL Insights 2022 PowerBook. For more information, follow her on social media and visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.