Rocket Lab is launching New Zealand's first aerospace engineering apprenticeship - fulfilling founder Peter Beck's long-held desire to help a "lost generation" of New Zealanders who have had scant trades-training opportunities.

The company says it's offering "the chance to gain a formal qualification while working hands-on with our Electron launch vehicle, one of the world's most frequently launched rockets."

The Kiwi-American company's director of production, Jamie France, says: "A qualification like this didn't exist in New Zealand, so we created one and worked with Service IQ, our partners and specialists in aviation industry training, to develop the [NZQA] unit standards to enable NZ's incredibly talented, world-leading space hardware technicians to have their experience formally recognised."

Rocket Lab's Aerospace Apprenticeship programme will initially be available to those in the aviation industry working towards an Aeronautical Engineering certificate, and to those looking to retrospectively cross-qualify their years of industry experience to the space sector, such as former Defence Force or commercial aircraft technicians.

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Could be open to school leavers

There are 15 apprentices in the first wave of the programme, described as "a mix of technicians at the beginning of their careers and those with 15 years-plus experience in a relevant trade from the automotive and aviation industries who are after an aerospace trade qualification."

But dependent on demand, Rocket Lab will look to expand the Aerospace Apprenticeship by opening it up to high school leavers by 2021.

All apprenticeships and internships are paid positions.

"As we weather the impacts of Covid-19 to continue launching missions, further development of our satellite division, and work on our upcoming mission to the Moon for Nasa next year, it's important to us at Rocket Lab that we play a part in developing careers and fostering talent that supports New Zealand's growing space economy," France says.

Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck says NZ has a
Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck says NZ has a "lost generation" who weren't taught trades, leading to a skills shortage. His company is running apprenticeships in a bid to fill the gap. Photo/Dean Purcell

Rocket Lab makes the Rutherford engines for its Electron rockets at its plant in LA but carries out assembly in Auckland.

During a Herald visit to its Auckland plant in June last year, Beck said Team NZ and Air New Zealand were two competitors for talent working with high-tech composites. Since then, Rocket Lab has taken on Air NZ engineers culled in the airline's Covid layoffs.

The Rocket Lab boss said some people don't even think to knock on his door, presuming his company only hires PhDs in astrophysics.

And while it has hired plenty of those, Beck stressed "we are hiring all disciplines", from finance to marketing to supply chain experts to people in trades.

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"Everyone thinks it's rocket science. But whether it's a supply chain to do with fruit or a supply chain to do with a rocket, it's the same," he said.

"What we build here are basically aircraft, so the majority of people on the floor are aircraft technicians. So we're looking for aircraft technicians and composite technicians and laminators - really a lot of jobs in the trade.

"New Zealand, like a lot of countries, has got a lost generation of trades and we're all paying for it now," Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck says.

"New Zealand, like a lot of countries, has got a lost generation of trades and we're all paying for it now. We're creating an apprenticeship programme here just to try and fill that backlog - certainly a lot in trades."

Following in Beck's footsteps

Beck himself left school at 17 to take up an apprenticeship with Fisher & Paykel at Mosgiel. He never went to university, although the University of Auckland recently made the self-taught rocket scientist an adjunct professor.

Rocket Lab has been on a drive to hire 100 extra staff.

The company employs more than 600, of whom around 450 are based in NZ, a spokeswoman said this morning.

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"Where other space companies have been rocked by bankruptcy and staff cuts [such as OneWeb and Astra], Rocket Lab has continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic while growing our team," the spokeswoman said.

"We have more than 50 positions open both in New Zealand and across our US sites, and most recently we created a new executive role to lead our growing satellite division."

Rocket Lab bought Canada's Sinclair Interplanetary satellite company in April.