Defending champion

For those looking to work on the cutting edge of technology, the UK defence sector offers many new engineering opportunities, says Julia Pierce.

Over the past decade, the global defence trade has been growing apace.

Deployments of forces, particularly in the middle east, have boosted the expenditure of the armed forces in the UK. Meanwhile, developing nations are upgrading and expanding their military capabilities and have been turning to UK innovation and expertise to fulfil their expectations. All of this is good news for our engineering employment market.

According to the government, its term in office has seen the longest period of sustained real-term growth in planned defence spending. The departmental spending review concluding in 2004 set the budget until 2007/08. This year this will be £33.4bn, making the UK the second biggest defence spender in the world after the US.

After inflation, outlay will have risen around 1.4 per cent, year-on-year. This may not seem like much, but it doesn’t include money allocated for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, meaning that real expenditure is much higher. As a result, a glance at almost any section of the UK’s defence industry shows that business is on the up.

As well as large, ongoing projects such as the next-generation Light Anti-Armour Weapon, last month alone three important developments further boosted the fortunes of the sector.

First, in early December it was announced that BAE Systems had won a £124m government contract to develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology. Project Taranis will see BAE lead an industry team including Rolls-Royce, Qinetiq, and Smiths Aerospace, exploring how technology can be used to deliver a new frontline UAV capability and produce one of the world’s largest unmanned aircraft. This will be about the size of a Hawk jet, integrating stealth technology with an intelligent, autonomous system.

Shortly afterwards, defence minister Lord Drayson signed a memorandum of understanding on the next phase of the JSF programme. This means that firms with JSF development contracts will now be able to compete for work in the next phase, and the expected value of this to the UK is over £15bn.

Of course, even this news was overshadowed by the government’s announcement of plans to spend up to £20bn on a new generation of submarines for Trident missiles.

Though submarine numbers look set to be cut from four to three, with the number of nuclear warheads down by 20 per cent, the vessels will take 17 years to develop and build, securing jobs and opening up many new engineering opportunities.

‘Trident will have a large impact on engineering recruitment for the defence industry,’ said Dan Brown, service delivery manager at recruitment consultant Elan Defence. ‘Meanwhile, programmes such as the Army’s Future Industry Soldier Technology initiative (FIST) and Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) as well as the JSF Typhoon, are still generating steady demand.’

Defence has long been one of the UK’s strengths. At 30 per cent, defence export sales are the biggest sub-sector of the aerospace industry alone.

Last year BAE Systems recruited more than 1,000 people into its air sector business. One of the new recruits is avionics engineer Andrew Mather, who is based in Warton, Lancs. He works as a systems integration test engineer within the Typhoon Avionics Programme with a team of three engineers responsible for the Defensive Aid Subs System (DASS) of the aircraft.

‘My main role is to test the avionics equipment so that the product meets the functionality requirements of the customer,’ he said.

Given the recognised national shortage of aerospace engineering talent, BAE Systems has been running a nationwide campaign to highlight opportunities in the company. It is now looking to recruit people from all entry routes in skill categories including engineering, project management and procurement.

‘There are some fantastic opportunities,’ said Nigel Whitehead, Air Systems group managing director. ‘We have had strong interest in our current recruitment campaign and the opportunities within the industry remain significant for those who are prepared to make the commitment.’

However, there are already shortages in some areas, something that the addition of new projects will exacerbate. ‘We are finding that systems engineers are very difficult to source,’ said Brown. ‘There are requirements for them in testing, validation and verification for a number of clients, but such people are hard to find.’

While some sectors may be turning their attention to recruiting staff from overseas to fill the UK’s skills gap, for the defence industry this is not a valid option. ‘The requirement for security clearance makes recruitment of nationals from outside the UK harder than in other areas,’ explained Brown. The result is a market where engineers with the right skills are highly valued and treated accordingly.

‘UK engineers are in demand from the transport, aerospace and defence industries in particular, and as a systems integrator we want people with high level skills,’ confirmed engineering manager John Abunassar of General Dynamics UK. The company is prime contractor and systems integrator for the Bowman digital voice and data tactical communications system that replaces the Clansman family of radios. ‘We value our engineers, so the salaries they are paid are very good.’

Meanwhile, the size and diverse requirements of the sector mean that there are opportunities to use skills that might be hard to use fully elsewhere.

Rob Thornley joined Qinetiq after completing a degree in robotics engineering. Two and a half years on, he is a robotics engineer on bomb disposal robot Talon, which Qinetiq acquired with the purchase of US company Foster Miller in 2004. As well as increasing Talon’s defence capabilities, Thornley is also gaining valuable experience of the commercial market.

‘Qinetiq is marketing the robot for a number of different situations such as police search and rescue and the fire service — anything involving rescuing a people from danger,’ he said.

Thornley is now running a project to integrate enhanced lighting into the system. ‘The ability to use infrared for operations in pitch black conditions will be offered to customers as an optional extra,’ he said. ‘For me, it is great to be able to apply the skills I studied. This year I have spent a month at Foster Miller’s offices outside Boston and have just returned from Germany.’

Thornley’s experience ties in with Qinetiq’s goal of transferring defence technology to other sectors. ‘In the coming year we will be looking to recruit systems engineers and also people on the production side,’ said Qinetiq’s deployment manager Rachel Ashley, noting that the company’s transformation from a government research facility into a profit-making enterprise is now reaching its conclusion.

‘We are moving to a more product-based environment as we look to sell more into the commercial marketplace, rather than concentrating on R&D. We have a lot of experience on the research side and we now need people who can take this and create products to develop the other side of our business.’

With such emphasis on technology transfer and a high demand for skilled staff, it seems that those entering the defence industry will be highly prized and highly rewarded. Not only this, but for those looking to work on the cutting edge of technology, where funding is assured, the defence sector could be very hard to beat.