Ambition for 10,000 jobs by 2030

The North East is on the cusp of a new ‘space age’, say industry experts who hope thousands more people will be working in the fast-growing sector by the end of the decade.

Opportunities will open up for people of all backgrounds as growth in the Northeast’s space sector continues to soar.

This week, space industry experts from around the world gathered in Durham for the North East Space Conference 2024.

Clive Roberts, Executive Dean for Sciences at the University of Durham, delivers his speech at the conference (Image: ELEANOR TIAT)

Now in its tenth year, the conference invites speakers from industry leaders to showcase the North East’s crucial role in pioneering innovative research and technology.

Space North East England, a group that connects local industry organizations and manufacturers, said it wants to employ 10,000 people in the region’s space sector by 2030.

They are calling on people from a wide variety of educational and work backgrounds to get involved. Opportunities won’t be limited to experts in rocket science, but careers in marketing, human resources and even creative writing should be open.

The number of people employed in the space industry in the North East is currently estimated at 1,300, but John Bone, Chief Commercial Officer of Scottish rocket company Orbex, said “10,000 is perfectly achievable in that period”.

John Bone, Chief Commercial Officer at Orbex with his model of the Orbex Prime – it is expected to be the first vertical rocket launch in Britain (Image: ELEANOR TAIT)

He added: “If you look at where we were ten years ago, it was less than a hundred [in the region’s space sector]. That’s incredible growth in those ten years, and without the likes of Lockheed Martin joining us.

“With the resources we had, we managed to do that. Now we need investment from companies and larger organizations to complement that already growing sector.”

Lockheed Martin is an American company that supports the development of international defense systems.

In 2023 it invested £50 million in Northumbria University to create the North East Space Skills and Technology Center (NEST). One of its functions will be to support the production of components for satellites, which will hopefully create thousands of jobs for the region.

Mr Bone said: “We do trains, we do cars – why not satellites?”

He sees the Northeast’s aerospace industry as a continuation of the region’s strong industrial heritage. Remembering the words of a colleague, he said: “We used to build ships – now we build spaceships.”

Robotic technology from the University of Sunderland is on display for spectators at the conference (Image: ELEANOR TAIT)

Nik Smith, regional director of Lockheed Martin in the UK and Europe, spoke about how he hopes to rethink the way the industry thinks about employability.

He said: “I’m still amazed that I’m supposed to be able to recruit someone based on a few pages of a CV and a five-minute conversation. We have to break that. Space has to do that, but we have to do that for all different sectors.

“People who are in really non-technical roles right now may have those traits, may have a brain functioning process that is perfect for software development. This is mainly because we’re going to introduce more AI-driven toolsets, which means you might need less purely around the ability to produce coding, but you’ll need to think creatively to figure out, ‘how do I solve this problem?’ .”

Kim McGuinness, Mayor of the North East, spoke at the conference about the value of leveraging the region’s existing skills and knowledge.

One asset in bringing the North East to the forefront of the space industry is the close collaboration between local universities. Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Teesside and Sunderland have all become increasingly involved in the manufacturing side of the space industry in recent years.

“The research expertise we have at the universities is fantastic,” Ms McGuinness said. “They respond directly to the future needs of the local space industry.

“We have the highest percentage of STEM students of any region in the country, and that talent is valuable and it’s here, and together we can make sure we keep it here.”

Ms McGuinness also spoke about her hopes to attract investment into the sector, saying: “Investing in this is completely practical for me and that is the kind of region I want this to be. Ambitious, innovative, but really very practical.

“The pace of progress we have seen in space technology in recent years, not just in our region, but globally, has been astonishing, but I know our region could be at the forefront of doing more.”

A high-flyer in the space sector with a fascinating career path in the sector is Preeya Lakhani. At just 28 years old, she moved from an internship at Gillette to an aerospace program leader at Lockheed Martin UK.

Preeya Lakhani of Lockheed Martin UK Space believes young people will lead the way in the UK space industry (Image: CONTRIBUTOR)

Preeya, who was recently diagnosed with ADHD and autism, struggled in sixth grade. However, at Gillette she found that the apprenticeship recruitment methods suited her better.

“It was not a written exam. It was about understanding how technical mechanisms work without having any experience with them,” she said.

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From there, Preeya discovered that her technical skills were transferable to a role at Lockheed Martin UK. Since then she has been involved in running their Space Camps for young people in the North East, and says they are “inundated with registrations” every year.

She believes the region’s young people will lead the way in the UK’s space industry, adding: “I would go so far as to say this is the dawn of the space age in the North East.”

As for Lockheed Martin’s presence in the region, she says, “There’s a lot more to come.”

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