A demand for engineering skills in the defence sector is creating a wealth of opportunities.

Defence is one of the most research-intensive and innovative sectors in the UK. It currently represents 10 per cent of the country’s manufacturing base, employs around 314,000 people and is responsible for £35bn of total economic contributions. Crucially, it is an export-heavy industry supporting 3,000 small and mediumsized firms – more than France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Norway put together.

Despite these strong figures, recent headlines suggest that options for engineers in defence are limited. With the country’s defence budget reduced from £37bn to £34bn for the next four years, the wave of job cuts throughout the sector has hit the front pages. But the demand for specialist engineering skills remains strong and, according to leading industry figures, the bleak picture painted by the media isn’t as accurate as it first seems.

Recruitment firm CBSbutler points out that while the Ministry of Defence has experienced major budget cuts, the reality is that there has been a steady decline in funding for the past few decades. As a result, larger engineering contractors have diversified into foreign markets – exporting huge amounts. As a result the UK is now second only to the US in its number of defence exports.

’We’re in a strong position globally and we are seeing a huge demand for highly qualified engineers,’ said John Docherty, business development manager at CBSbutler. ’The problem is engineers are being told the opposite and I’m quite angry at the situation we’ve got ourselves into… the news is filled with stories of unemployment and cuts, but if you have an engineering background the opportunities in defence couldn’t be better.’

The government’s push to rebalance the economy towards advanced manufacturing is expected to create skilled jobs over the medium term. Meanwhile, there have been a number of high-investment UK military projects such as the Future Rapid Effect System and the forthcoming Global Combat Ship programme, which will provide substantial employment. Combined with the rapidly changing nature of conflict, this has led to a growing number of skills gaps that need to be filled.

“UK defence is in a strong position and we are seeing a huge demand for highly qualified engineers”

’Gaps are appearing all the time,’ said Kevin Jones, director of information security and air at industry group ADS. ’[In] intelligent systems, engine technologies, composite systems, cyber security, sensor suites, data fusion software and information surveillance systems to name but a few opportunities.’

Large organisations are spreading the net further, to attract engineers from other professions. ’We have successfully recruited from the automotive, oil and gas and rail sectors, in addition to commercial maritime and aerospace organisations,’ said Kate Watcham, a spokesperson for BAE Systems.

BAE added that it expects a greater emphasis on the supply of security systems to commercial customers over the coming years. It is currently recruiting for mechanical, electrical, design, nuclear and combat systems engineers, and has one of the UK’s largest apprenticeship programmes.

The opportunities are out there, but Jones claims the industry needs to market itself to engineers more effectively. ’The defence industrial base’s unique selling point is its drive for innovating new technologies, developing its engineering workforce and finding new routes to market,’ he said. ’Also, this is a global industry – which means for those [who] are looking for a job [that] has a potential to travel: defence is it.’

Jones highlights the key skills he believes engineers in today’s defence sector need; the ability to reflect upon technical, managerial and environmental issues, problem solving and the skills to develop powerful and timely solutions. Those who gain a career in defence can look forward to higher than average wages. According to figures by ADS, an engineer’s pay in the defence industry is 46 per cent higher than the gross mean weekly wage in the UK – that means, on average, the annual salary is more than £37,000.

From 2015, the government has committed to increasing defence funding in real terms. With greater competition for resources, many believe this is the minimum it needs to be doing to secure the UK against future threats. Engineers who can innovate and lead will be vital to not only achieving this, but also ensuring the UK’s economic recovery.