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Workforce development and mentorship with Joe Bullington.

Joe Bullington works for Jacobs Space Exploration Group . Find out how he uses community engagement and advocacy for workforce development.



Deep Space


The space industry has a workforce problem. Find out how Jacobs Senior Manager Joe Bullington uses community engagement and advocacy to reach new pools of talent. 

You can connect with Joe on LinkedIn and learn more about the Jacobs Space Exploration Group on their website.

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[MUSIC] Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks.

I'm Maria Varmausis, host of the T-Minus Space Daily podcast.

Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content.

For a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program.

[MUSIC] And we talk a lot about workforce development on the show.

There are many avenues to reach out to new talent pools, and we've covered steam programs and competitions galore.

And today we're going to talk about mentorship and community advocacy.

Joe Bullington is a manager in the Jacobs Space Exploration Group in Huntsville, Alabama.

And JSEG provides services through the engineering services and science capability augmentation contract at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Joe's worked as a NASA contractor for many years.

And we started our conversation with him, telling me what inspired him to join the aerospace workforce.

>> I was fortunate to grow up with a father who was an engineer.

So I was interested in technology from an early age in science and that kind of stuff.

He actually was a flight engineer on an Air Force bomber aircraft.

And later on in his life, he became a professor of civil engineering at Tennessee Tech University, where I basically got my electrical engineering degree.

So lots of great memories of my dad doing stuff with myself and my brother related to science and so forth.

No, not everybody gets that, so that's how I appreciate that that happened.

I decided to be electrical engineering because I was always interested in electronics and communications and things like that.

So electrical engineering degree went to work for an engineering company right out of college.

Working in an Air Force testing center where we tested all kinds of aerospace things.

Rocket engines, jet engines, aircraft in wind tunnels, aerospace systems in thermal vacuum chambers and things like that.

So a lot of good grounding in what aerospace is all about.

So done that kind of stuff for my whole career.

All different kinds of aerospace things.

And one of the things I'll mention to people that are interested in going into an engineering or STEM career.

I've done a lot of different things over the years.

For the last 25 years, I've been a manager, engineering manager.

So I still dabble in technology, but mostly I lead organizations smaller and larger.

Point there is when you get started, find something that you're passionate about.

Learn about it any way you can, get into it.

And then just follow where the opportunities lead you.

Because one of the reasons I've got a lot of different diverse experiences, I was frequently saying yes to opportunities to do new and different things.

>> Did you have a favorite?

I'm curious, you've had so much experience in your career.

I started like asking you to choose a child, but I'm curious if anything really stands out.

>> Yeah, so a couple of things do that I thought were particularly fun for me.

We built a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

A new test facility was built some years ago to test the full-up Chandra X-ray telescope before it was launched.

We had to actually build a new bigger facility just for that.

I was part of the team that did that along with NASA folks and other contractors.

That was a lot of fun to do that project and then get to see Chandra X-ray telescope fly.

Some years later, I worked, I was called the avionics lead subsystems engineer for several different flight projects, including a satellite that went up to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous technology.

To have one satellite or spacecraft be able to go find another spacecraft or vehicle and rendezvous with it autonomously.

I guess the other fun part of me is in general, getting the opportunity to lead different groups.

I really like working with people.

I really like teams.

As I got more experience, I'm glad I got the opportunity to lead different teams and try to help people build their careers and do good things.

>> Yeah, well, I can understand that also because you had such great mentorship and you were coming up too.

And you've seen personally what a big difference it made in your life.

And as you said, not everybody gets that, but you're providing that to others and that's a really wonderful thing.

>> So I've always been, again, I got this from my parents and other mentors growing up, being involved in community organizations and later on getting into professional and business organizations.

And I really get a big charge out of that.

I think there's something that's needed and I enjoy doing it.

So for example, one of the first ones I got into was the AIAA, which is just like the biggest all-encompassing aerospace organization.

I've been multiple different leadership roles in that organization, local chapter leadership, and also on the computer systems technical committee at a national level.

In recent years, last 10 or 12 years, I've been involved in another organization called International Test and Evaluation Association, which is very aerospace related.

I'm currently on the International Board of Directors for that organization.

Then there's some other things.

I know you've talked to other people from New Mexico, which is where I did a lot of the outreach and business and professional society work that I've done in recent years.

I was in New Mexico for about 17 years, currently in Huntsville, Alabama.

So New Space Nexus, which was formerly New Space New Mexico, I'm one of the founding members of that.

Still involved with that organization.

I helped stand up a couple of other organizations that are aerospace related, Las Cruces Space Festival.

That was a lot of fun.

And that was particularly aimed, as you know, at helping everybody get, learn about space and get interested in it, but particularly kids coming up to say, even in Las Cruces, New Mexico, there's a lot of things going on that they could get involved in and look for careers in that area.

And I think it's something that's really good for the community.

And I'll say before I forget it, others have said this, but one of the big things for me in terms of these different organizations and particularly the things that help kids get interested, as well as even mid-career adults is the aerospace industry and technology more broadly.

If you grow that in an area, it's a huge economic driver for the area.

It provides good jobs as those jobs grow and the companies come in and spend money and the people get good paying jobs and pay their taxes and shopping stores.

It grows the economy for everybody and helps the prosperity of the community.

So to me, that aspect is at least as important as the technical cool factor of it.


And I'm going to be really soft here for a minute, but it's also so inspiring.

It really helps people dream about something that maybe they thought was totally out of reach for them in addition to the really important economic value, which cannot be understated.

That softer side too of giving somebody an ambition that maybe wasn't there before, it really changes lives.

It really does.

So other things, I guess I would say for people to emphasize this is if you're interested in aerospace, spaceflight, technology, if you go looking, there's a ton of information out there, thousand times more than there was when I was getting started.

Anybody that's got access to the internet, there's so much information out there.

And I would say just go out there and start learning.

Just search for things that interest you.

That'll lead you to other things.

Get involved in organizations.

And if there's online events or online, any kind of opportunities to learn, do that and think about, is this good to go to school and get a degree, technical degree, or you don't have to be an engineer or a technician to work in the industry.

They need other things.

They need all kinds of support functions, lawyers.

They need people to help with logistics and administration and all kinds of things.

So if you're interested in space, there's a whole bunch of different careers you can go into that are part of the space industry.

The more you find out about it, the more valuable you be.

And as you said, more fired up and interested and inspired, hopefully you'll be about going into the industry.

And they'll help you grow and progress.

We can't emphasize enough what you just said so well about how many different roles there are in space.

It's wonderful someone wants to get a degree and go into engineering.

I mean, I encourage that 100%.

But it is also not everybody's path and that's okay too.

So Joe, you are involved in so many different organizations, which is amazing.

Do you connect people between these orgs?

How does that work?

Like there's a whole ecosystem, especially in the aerospace world of all these different organizations doing all these various things and they overlap a little bit.

And yeah, can you tell me a bit about that?


Actually, that's one of the reasons that I'm in multiple organizations.

First, I get something from each one of them.

They're different.

They have different things.

But yes, I do try to make connections between people and organizations because of that being involved in different things.

I was fortunate during the years, particularly recent years that I was at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, that part of my job for a number of years, in addition to being a department manager, to do outreach on behalf of my company and NASA.

So I got to spend some extra time.

I've always done that, but I got to spend some extra time.

And especially in Southern New Mexico, I was doing a bunch of different orgs and things, including by the way, being on the board of the Chamber of Commerce.

And we're trying to use all that again to help the workforce development aspect, to help the economic growth development aspect, and again, just to help inspire kids and adults to be interested in that whole world of aerospace and spaceflight, and to realize what there is there and available to do.

[Music] We'll be right back after this quick break.

I'm very curious also, given the course of your career and the amazing perspective that you have, especially in managing people, I'm wondering if you've seen changes or...

I'm just thinking, we're in a new space era, we're in a new space race or a new space age, whatever people call it.

And I'm wondering if you're seeing the new classes, the new cohorts of people coming in.

Is there sort of like a different feeling?

Is there something sort of driving them?

It might be different from the past, or is it always the same?

Or I'm just really curious.

Well, you know, there's a lot of discussion about that in the whole, you know, the whole business and job world, and it's certainly in the aerospace industry.

So I think, in general, a trend that's happened over the years is, when I first started, you know, you were expected to be very focused on the job all day, every day is be available whenever needed and all that kind of stuff.

In recent years, I think not just with younger generations, but I think it's true of other generations.

People want to have a better work-life balance.

And I'm fortunate to work for a company that supports that.

We have to get the work we do for NASA here is very important.

And we're all fired up about doing it, but we're encouraged to have a good work-life balance.

I think another thing is the technology is so universally available.

It has been for a while.

You've heard stories about, you know, kids or young people that are 15, 16 years old that are already master coders because there's so much information available now and they get interested in it.

So, you know, not everybody is that way, but it's not unusual to have somebody come in with just amazing skills in some aspect of technology, particularly computers and software, when they come into the job, which helps a lot for them to get started and to make them valuable to us.

Yeah, absolutely.


And I would imagine some things are always going to remain where people want to solve really interesting challenges, obviously the love of space and like doing really fascinating things and working and building things that have never been built before, doing something new.

That is a huge part of the appeal, at least for me, I imagine.

Yeah, exactly.

And that's one of the things that, you know, helps us to get some of the best and brightest, you know, is that they want to work on NASA projects or they want to work on other aerospace projects because it is inspiring.

It's something that, you know, really captures the imagination and it makes people want to get involved and excel and do good things.

Of course, in recent years, as you know, the commercial space industry has just grown tremendously, which is finding a lot more opportunities for people and it's, the commercial space companies are doing some of the things that NASA has traditionally done, but that's okay because that's part of the NASA's vision going forward is they're not going to try to do everything anymore.

They need the commercial space companies to provide some of the services that's happening and it's picking up at a rapid pace.

And that, again, that provides a lot more opportunities and as well as inspiration, we get to see lots of cool launch videos and other things, you know, that have the different companies that are doing that.

Yeah, it is always so cool to watch those.

It never gets old for me.

It's just so great.

And I'm glad to hear you feel the same way because if it never gets old for you, then that's awesome because you've seen so much in your career.

I love that.

That's so great.

Yeah, I have worked in my career mostly away from the launch sites, but I've been fortunate to be able to go to launches a number of times over the years, Kennedy Space Center and other places.

And it's always, it's always just, you know, awe-inspiring wherever you see it, especially when the really big things like the space shuttle and in recent years, the large boosters that are now coming along from NASA and from SpaceX and others.

It's absolutely incredible to see.

Even in my lifetime, it's just been unbelievable.

I keep going back to mentorship because it's something that's a big part of your mission and you've given some great advice already, especially about making sure you say yes to opportunities, which I think is so important.

When it comes to managing people, sort of like regardless of what field someone is, there are some things that are sort of people focused.

I'm curious if there's sort of guidance that you often give that you might want to share with the audience, especially if they're at the start of their career or maybe trying to figure out, you know, I'm thinking of people, especially in their 20s who are just starting out and trying to figure out where their next step's going to be.

It can be very hard to navigate maybe what someone wants to specialize in.

I imagine you've guided a lot of people in this situation.

What are your thoughts on that?

It makes me think about one of the things we've talked about in, you know, in my job and also another organization I was in there in Las Cruces is an organization called The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, which is a workforce development non-profit organization.

We've talked a lot about this and polled companies about what they would most like to see in employees.

So one of the things is the so-called soft skills and it means things like, you know, show up to work on time, come with a good attitude, be interested and curious and, you know, try to lean forward.

And another thing I'll say is one of the things that we can, everybody can do is think like you're a leader and learn how to be a leader.

Even if you're only leading yourself, the leadership skills mean things like, you know, looking forward.

Don't just have your head down, do what you're doing now.

Look for what's coming next.

There are a number of people that I have worked with and have worked for me that didn't have a leadership title, but they were thought leaders.

They were looking ahead and thinking and preparing for what's next and kind of starting to help plan for what's next for what works need to be done.

And then other people benefit from that.

So that's a thing.

When I'm helping my folks that work for me or others that I work with trying to think about what they want to do, I always start with what interests you.

What kinds of things are you, what you most like to do?

You know, you may not be able to do it, you know, tomorrow and sometimes just having long conversations talking about different things that they're interested in to try to get them around to understanding what their passion is, what they want to do and then try to help them with finding resources to help them learn about that and get ready for it.

I think that's something that's good, that works great when you're, you know, a teenager trying to figure out what you want to do in life and even all through your career because like I said, I've done a lot of different things and a lot of people I work with have as well.

And so just looking around and seeing what's going on that interests me and how can I learn more about it and work my way into that.

That's fantastic advice.

Thank you, Joe.

I know I've been picking your brain for a while.

I just, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you, as someone who is such a seasoned expert in the aerospace world, what are you excited about right now for what's going on in our world?

Like what's got you jazzed?

Well, obviously the space industry continues to be a cool thing for me.

Lots of different aspects of it.

Like I said, I work supporting NASA.

I really want NASA to succeed.

And NASA has been, I'll say from a lot, many years of experience, has been very good for the country to keep us, you know, a technology leader in the world.

And they're still doing that.

And I think there's a long future for NASA to continue doing that.

There's always could be things that will be in the best interest of the country.

Commercial space companies may or may not do, depending on what makes sense for them.

So the rise of the commercial space companies is, you know, that's just new, really exciting stuff for me.

All the different ones, especially of course, the ones that launch people into space are always the most exciting because it's cool to see robots go out there.

But, you know, other people have said, I think, accurately that sending robots out is cool and it does good things for us.

And we need to do that, especially in advance of humans.

But until somebody, a human goes out there and experiences and tells us about it, it just doesn't capture our imagination in the same way.

It doesn't get the whole world interested the way a human space slide does.

So I think that's a big part of it.

I know you know well, there are so many things in space now that is changing how we view our world and how we are able to take care of our world and understand it.

With the thousands of satellites that are up there, there's just an unimaginable amount of information that we have available now that we didn't have anything like that 20 or 30 years ago.

That's it for T-minus for February 10th, 2024.

As always, we would love to know what you think of this podcast.

You can email us at space@entuk.com or submit the survey in the show notes.

Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry.

This episode was produced by Alice Carouse, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman.

Our executive producer is Jen Ivan.

Our VP is Brandon Karp.

And I'm Maria of Armazes.

Thanks for listening.

Have a wonderful weekend.

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