Reach for the sky

7 min read

The UK is home to a quarter of the EU’s aerospace jobs and, with a growing demand for military and more efficient civil aircraft, manufacturers are struggling to fill engineering vacancies. Julia Pierce reports



’s aerospace industry has enjoyed something of a recruitment renaissance over the last few years, helped by trends in the military and civil sectors.

Having supported more than 250,000 jobs in 1980, employment levels fell sharply as demand for military aircraft waned at the end of the Cold War.

In recent years, however, the picture has changed again. Conflict in the

Middle East

has renewed demand for military aircraft, while a need for cleaner, more efficient and quieter civil aircraft has led to more orders for models based on the latest engine and airframe designs.

Because of the demand to cut the cost and carbon emissions of air travel, aircraft manufacturers are having to cut development costs and improve the efficiency of their aircraft.

As a result, with production slots for most of Boeing’s models already largely filled for the next three years and a healthy backlog for several Airbus models, the aerospace industry and its suppliers are doing well.

The latest survey of the aerospace industry, carried out by the SBAC — the national trade association representing companies supplying civil air transport, defence, homeland security and space — found in 2006 the sector directly employed 124,000 people, had a turnover of £19.8bn and new orders had increased by 6 per cent to £26.2bn.

In terms of activity in Europe, the SBAC noted that the majority of the European aerospace industry is located in the UK, and 26 per cent of all aerospace jobs in the EU are located in this country. Given this picture, the future for UK engineers seeking work is looking bright.

‘The industry is going through a busy period,’ said Mike Sheehan, director of gas turbines business for the Assystem Group, which supplies staff to companies on both the airframe and engine sides of the business.

‘The major OEMs, Boeing and Airbus are busy. Boeing is at the back end of the 787 programme. Meanwhile, Airbus is starting with its A350 programme and this is not anywhere near the peak of activity.

However, the UK has a general shortage of engineering skills and experience.

Simon Rees, business manager at Frazer-Nash Consultancy (FNC) agreed. ‘There’s a real shortage of both quality graduates and experienced engineers, and this applies to all our areas, not just aerospace. In particular we are looking for mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers, and applied mathematicians. We have also been known to take the odd physicist.’

One reason for this scarcity of resources is the demand from other sectors of the economy. ‘There’s plenty happening in engineering — big projects in aerospace, marine, offshore, power generation — and major civil engineering projects take a share of the available mechanical and aerospace pool as well,’ said Rees. ‘There’s intense competition for good people, and the demand is such that sound fundamental attributes — excellent academic pedigree, energetic and dedicated approach — are more important than any need to fill sector or skill specific roles.’

However, Rees said some universities were now shifting their emphasis from learning the core skills that lie at the heart of creating a good engineer. ‘There’s a feeling that some universities are tending to put too much project content into courses and are reducing the academic element, which is a real problem.

‘The best place to learn how to run an engineering project is in industry, not academia, but we can’t spend time teaching academic fundamentals,’ he said. Assystem’s Sheehan added: ‘We are short of people with real design and analysis competence. While graduate recruitment is doing well there is a shortage of people at the higher skilled end. However, there is interesting and challenging work for people with the right skills.

‘Traditionally, we have taken people from other hi-tech industries to fill gaps — we don’t just limit our horizon to the aerospace industry. People with good engineering fundamentals are very transferable.’

Microfiltrex, a division of the Porvair Filtration Group, has opportunities for self-motivated mechanical design and project engineers and a graduate its team. According to operations manager Ian Boxall, the design/project engineer positions will be responsible for the entire project, from concept through detail design and qualification to release for manufacture.

‘For all positions applicants must be able to demonstrate excellent communication skills and a good practical approach to engineering challenges,’ he said. ‘Recruiting mechanical engineers is proving increasingly challenging at all levels and disciplines. Competition is also high for the best applicants. We would look to recruit applicants with key transferable skills applicable to our product range such as filtration and separation and fluid flow, encompassing markets such as industrial hydraulics and nuclear.’

As the major aircraft manufacturers bid for business, outsourcing of engineering services is playing an ever more important role. It enables them to maintain margins and lower costs without compromising quality, while tapping into a wider skills pool to find the expertise they need to improve processes and products.

As a result, more opportunities for engineers are occurring within the supplier and support organisations that provide parts and services to names such as Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

‘We have just won a contract to fulfil the jet engine tooling requirements for Rolls-Royce — they are outsourcing this to us. This means we are expanding and are looking for project engineers with a detailed understanding of aeronautical processes and stress analysis,’ said Avtar S. Bratch, technical support manager at Hydro Engine Support.

‘We are also looking to recruit programme managers to work on engines, specifically the XWB for the new Airbus A350. Though previous experience would be ideal, we are willing to look outside the industry to find the right people.’

Such thoughts are echoed elsewhere. ‘We are currently bidding for two large programmes and if both go ahead then we will be needing a lot of engineers,’ said Louise Hart, human resources manager at Esterline Technologies, formerly Weston Aerospace. The company is a tier 1 supplier to Rolls-Royce, among others.

‘We are looking to recruit design engineers at different levels and to fill such gaps, as well as the aerospace industry, we are looking at the automotive and instrumentation fields to find the right personnel. Above all else we are looking for quality engineering staff.’

Joining a supplier is likely to offer the same perks and opportunities as becoming part of an OEM. Now that the company is part of Esterline, Hart said there are even more opportunities within the group for engineers to expand their skills base.

Examples of this come through working in different countries and for different parts of the group. ‘The Esterline sensors group has people working in the US, France, Mexico and Asia,’ said Hart. ‘There are a lot of opportunities for people to go on secondment.’

Certainly, changes in the operating patterns of OEMs mean that the supply and support sector is in great need of staff. ‘There’s a move in the industry to placing a larger proportion of the work with the supply chain,’ said FNC’s Rees. ‘Although much of this is driven by manufacturing, a similar process is happening with technology providers.

‘As we specialise in some of the more difficult engineering disciplines, we’re finding that demand for our services is considerably exceeding supply.’

The number of existing orders awaiting fulfillment and the urgent demand for cleaner, greener aircraft shows no sign of abating, particularly given the soaring price of aviation fuel. However, nowhere is likely to be immune to the possible economic downturn that is threatening the UK.

Given this, some are warning that the industry may be affected despite its current strength, although the degree of impact may be relatively slight.

‘Both the major airframers have large order books and some manufacturing rates are actually increasing,’ said Rees.

‘However, both also have a large number of what are called options — orders that haven’t yet been formally placed — and if the economic situation worsens later in the year it’s possible that some of these will not be converted to full orders.

‘Despite this, the demand for new, more efficient aircraft will remain, and there’s no sign of the skills shortage abating. But if the airframers’ sales drop, then the rate of progress on new designs might well be reduced.’

Others believe the industry’s strength means it will require a fundamental shift in the behaviour of the public for a major shock to take place. ‘At the moment, Esterline is successful as it is following a path of acquiring a lot of companies,’ said Hart. ‘It is also pushing the idea of lean manufacturing. The only thing that will affect the industry is if people decide they do not want to fly any more.’

Even if some orders are put on hold, some observers think that with a general lack of good, skilled aerospace engineering professionals, the future for those working within the sector is good.

‘The aerospace sector is going through a period of change, just as the automotive industry has,’ said Hydro Engine Support’s Bratch. ‘Companies are looking at their finances and how they can streamline their business through activities such as outsourcing of some services, and I think this will continue for some time.’

Daniel Hedley, operations director at Roissy Technical Services, said:‘Although some companies may be experiencing problems, given the economy, I can’t see that aerospace engineers will have trouble getting work as there is such a shortage of people in general.

‘We are looking for B1 and B2 licensed engineers as well as mechanics and avionics specialists. As a group we recently purchased a hanger in the Humberside region that is large enough for a 757. There is also an A320 contract coming up soon.’

Such a shortage of skilled and experienced personnel should provide aerospace engineers — as well as those interested in entering the sector from elsewhere — with the opportunity to find a role and a company that is an ideal fit.

According to the SBAC, aircraft and airframes account for 42 per cent of the UK aerospace industry activity in terms of employment, followed by equipment at 30 per cent and engines at 28 per cent. This should mean opportunities are available for all skills-sets.

Each company may have its own working culture so, with many jobs on offer, finding one that suits an applicant’s own style should be easier. ‘We give people quite a lot of ownership as we have quite a flat management structure,’ said Esterline’s Hart. ‘This is especially the case in technical careers — people can create their own career path.’

Overall, despite some uncertainty over economic growth, both the short and long-term prospects for aerospace engineers look good. Unless there is a major downturn or sudden change in the public’s appetite for flying, the need for the engineering skills that will allow aircraft manufacturers to adapt to changing demands will remain strong from OEMs and their supply chain.

‘Efficiency improvements for engines and airframe noise reduction are areas where much work is going to be taking place,’ said Assystem’s Sheehan. ‘Environmental issues and demands will drive the design and innovation of new aircraft for the future, this is just a fact of life now.’

An apology

In our last careers feature ‘Watch this space’ (16 June) we reported that EADS Astrium was looking for between 70 and 80 engineers. In fact, it is creating several hundred positions, between 70 and 80 per cent of which will be engineers. It is therefore looking for just under 500 engineering staff. Apologies for the error.