Ambition for 10,000 jobs by 2030

The North East is at the start of a new “space age”, with industry experts expecting thousands more people to be working in the fast-growing sector by the end of the decade.

Opportunities are opening up for people from all backgrounds as growth in the North East’s space sector continues to increase.

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

Clive Roberts, Executive Dean of Sciences at Durham University, addresses the conference (Image: ELEANOR TIAT)

Now in its tenth year, the conference invited industry-leading speakers to highlight the North East’s vital role in pioneering research and technology.

Space East England, a group linking local industry organizations and manufacturers, said it wants 10,000 people employed in the region’s space sector by 2030.

They are attractive to people from a wide range of educational and working backgrounds to join. Opportunities won’t be limited to experts in rocket science, but careers in marketing, human resources, and even creative writing should open up.

There are currently an estimated 1,300 people in the North East’s space industry, but John Bone, Chief Commercial Officer for Scottish rocket company Orbex, said “10,000 is perfectly feasible in that period”.

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

He added: “When 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 over that ten-year period, and that’s without the likes of Lockheed Martin coming in.

“We managed to do that with what we had. Now we need investment from large companies and organizations to complement that already growing sector.”

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

In 2023, he invested £50 million in Northumbria University to create the North East Center for Skills and Technology (NEST). One of its functions will be to support the manufacture of components for satellites and it is expected that thousands of jobs will be created in the region.

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

He sees the North East’s space 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 spacecraft.”

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

Nik Smith, regional director for 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 in awe that I’m going to hire someone based on a few pages of CV and a five minute interview. We have to break that. There has to be room, but we have to do that for all different sectors.

“People who sit in really non-technical roles right now might have those characteristics, they might have a brain-functioning process that’s perfect for software development. This is especially so as we start to introduce more AI-driven toolsets, which means you may need less in terms of coding ability to produce, but you need creative thinking to find out. , ‘how can I solve this problem?’.”

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

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

“The research expertise we have in the universities is fantastic,” said Ms McGuinness. “They directly respond 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 for attracting investment in the sector, saying: “Investment is absolutely practical for me and that’s the kind of region I want to be in. Ambitious, innovative, but really, really, practical.

“The speed of progress we have seen in space technology in recent years, not only in our region, but around the world, is amazing, but I know that our region could be at the forefront of more do more.”

A high-flying individual in the space sector with an interesting career path into the industry is Preeya Lakhani. At the age of 28 she progressed from an apprenticeship with Gillette, to become Program Leader for Space with Lockheed Martin UK.

Lockheed Martin UK Space’s Preeya Lakhani believes young people will lead the UK space industry (Image: CONTRIBUTOR)

Preeya, recently diagnosed with ADHD and autism, was struggling in sixth grade. At Gillette, however, she found her apprenticeship recruiting methods better suited.

“It was not a written exam. It was about understanding how engineering mechanisms work, without having any experience of that,” she said.

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From there, Preeya discovered that her engineering 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, which she says are “inundated with applications” every year.

She believes the region’s young people will lead the UK’s space industry, saying: “This is the dawn of the North East’s space age.”

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

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