Roughly a quarter of the nation's 637,000 aerospace workers could be eligible for retirement this year, raising fears that America could face a serious skills shortage in the factories that churn out commercial and military aircraft.
"It's a looming issue that's getting more serious year by year," said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association. "These are real veterans. It's a hard work force to replace."
The association, which represents aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, has designated the potential skills drain as one of its top 10 priorities in this year's presidential race. One of the major aerospace unions is embracing the issue in a rare alliance between labor and management.
"It's not a problem that's coming. It's here," said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
....Ten years ago, the industry's largest age group was 35 to 44. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of the work force was 45 or older. At least 20 percent were between the ages of 55 to 64, and many, if not most, were already eligible for retirement.
The problem is essentially one of supply and demand. Both the commercial and military segments of the industry are enjoying robust growth, with sales expected to increase by $12 billion this year.
The demand for aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer engineering disciplines is expected to be double what it was 10 years ago.
But analysts and corporate bosses say higher education is turning out far too few engineering and aeronautical graduates to fill future vacancies. Public schools' poor record in teaching math and science is another worry.