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The ASCENDxSummit on the next-generation workforce revealed new challenges and opportunities on the horizon

The space sector is booming and so is the demand for workers. Off-world communities will require myriad talents from engineering and construction to beer brewing and botany. Who will live and work in space, and what type of jobs will they perform? The ASCENDx Summit: Accelerating the Next-Generation Workforce featured an eclectic roster of futurists, historians, educators, and advocates to explore those questions and offer guidance for career success in space.

The opening panel session found Kara Cunzeman of the Aerospace Corp., Devin Liddell of Teague, and historian Margaret O’Mara from the University of Washington bouncing from past to future in a kinetic conversation that probably uncovered as many questions as answers! In the second session, Heather Doty, president of the Society of Women Engineers and a workforce development leader at Ball Aerospace, offered advice on warding off mid-career malaise.

Here are five key takeaways from the conversations:

  1. Artists, brewers, and furniture designers wanted. Moving off-world means reimagining not only our work lives but rest and leisure activities as well. Music, art, food, and beverages will help make off-world habitats more comfortable and familiar. As for beer brewing, it’s likely to reemerge in space because “we’ve taken it everywhere we’ve gone in recent history,” Liddell says. Creating foam, though, will be tricky without gravity.
  2. Diversity equals innovation. Rapid expansion in the space sector offers opportunities to create teams of diverse individuals, whether that means people of different backgrounds, races, genders, or neurodiversity. “Bring people into the room. Don’t be constrained by who’s done it before,” O’Mara says. “Seize that opportunity to be inclusive.”
  3. Reimagine space travel, exploration, and settlement. Sci-fi narratives often present dystopian futures. “There are alternative futures that we could totally make happen, but we have to dream those,” Cunzeman says. Off-world civilizations could, for example, propel the adoption of alternative energy technologies.
  4. Interdisciplinary knowledge is the new superpower. The off-world economy will offer bright futures for interdisciplinary thinkers like a space MacGyver who’s capable of tackling many different jobs. “One of the traps we fall into is this notion of intense specialization, thinking about the future through the lens of job titles we don’t have right now,” Liddell says. “But there is just as bright of a future for thinkers who will bring all these things together.”
  5. Never stop learning, growing, and teaching. Most people go through periods of ennui or malaise during lengthy careers even without a COVID-19 pandemic upending their lives. Learning new skills, seeking a mentor, or becoming one can be reinvigorating. “People sometimes wonder what it is that they can offer,” Doty says. “I absolutely believe that everyone has something that they can offer to someone else. Helping other folks can make us feel fulfilled.”
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