High fliers scale the heights

The type of engineer graduates that the industry needs is changing fast. Helen Beasley looks at what employers are doing to attract the best candidates

Engineering careers in the aerospace industry are changing rapidly. The technology used in the sector has shifted away from hardware and hard-wiring towards the increasing use of software and systems, leading to a similar change in the type of engineer companies are looking to recruit.

Aerospace companies now need software engineering graduates able to design, build and deliver intelligent, real-time computer systems, such as those used in aircraft cockpits. Engineers capable of designing complete systems, such as entire weapons systems, are also in considerable demand.

Mike Coulson, a recruitment manager with BAE Systems, says the company is looking to recruit approximately 800 engineers over the next twelve months. `We want systems and software engineers across all disciplines, electrical, mechanical, aero-frame, structural, and aerodynamics,’ he says.

BAE Systems has approximately 50 sites across the UK, and will recruit between 400 and 500 recent graduates this year, making it one of the largest graduate employers in the UK.

As part of their development programme, the new graduates at BAE Systems are expected to act as role models, going in to schools to explain the opportunities in aerospace and defence engineering. This Engineering into Schools programme aims to broadcast the message that engineering is fun, Coulson explains. `Its all about making engineering look a more attractive enterprise to little ones and of course to girls as well, because there are just not enough,’ he says.

With high-calibre graduate numbers limited, staff training is another key issue, as companies attempt to fill some of their shortages by developing existing employees. At BAE System’s Wharton base, where the company undertakes some of its Eurofighter and military aircraft work, a software training school offers staff the opportunity to update their computer skills, and a similar venture is offered at its avionics business in Plymouth. The company’s Virtual University also enables employees to obtain learning material on soft skills, software skills such as c++ computer programming, and engineering.

`There is no single answer to a skills shortage, its got to be a package of measures like retraining, recruitment, and the use of sub-contractors,’ says Coulson. `I think whatever you do at university you still need more specific industry and product training. But if the enquiring, fertile mind, with good inter-personal and presentation skills is there, we can do a lot with them.’

Another avenue for engineers interested in a career in the aerospace sector, although perhaps less well-known, is the Royal Air Force. Flight lieutenant Justin Gilroy, on the engineer liaison team at the RAF, said the service looks for a cross-section of engineers, including those with electrical, electronic and mechanical degrees. `We require an almost limitless number of disciplines, because we do everything from telecommunications engineering, computers and IT through to large ground-based radar, aircraft, helicopters, engines and avionics,’ he says.

The RAF works closely with organisations such as the Campaign to Promote Engineering and the Aerospace Challenge, giving them support and funding, to increase the pool of engineers to recruit from. It also runs two sponsorship schemes at sixth form and degree level to encourage students to go in to engineering in the armed forces.

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