Room for high-flyers

If you were to compare today’s UK aerospace industry with that of 50 years ago, it would be more than just the technology that has undergone huge change. Over the last two years, deals such as the sale of the Smiths Aerospace business to General Electric, together with BAE Systems’ sale of its 20 per […]

If you were to compare today’s UK aerospace industry with that of 50 years ago, it would be more than just the technology that has undergone huge change.

Over the last two years, deals such as the sale of the Smiths Aerospace business to General Electric, together with BAE Systems’ sale of its 20 per cent stake in Airbus to EADS, mean some formerly UK-owned elements of the industry are now controlled from abroad.

Despite this, the UK retains a strong domestically-owned aerospace base and, even where there has been fresh ownership, this has often led to a new lease of life for the sector.

‘We have seen strong demand for permanent staff, particularly mechanical, design and stress engineers,’ said Graham Fishwick, aerospace consultant for recruitment consultant Advanced Resource Managers. ‘Contract work is also doing well, particularly as foreign companies seem to be paying increasingly well. Europe and the far east are very busy.’

But what are the reasons behind the industry’s robust health? As a whole, the aerospace sector is bouncing back from the dark days it experienced six years ago following September 11.

According to the 2006 annual aerospace industry survey by SBAC, the UK’s national trade association representing companies supplying civil air transport, aerospace defence, homeland security and space, 2005 turnover for UK aerospace companies increased by 25 per cent to £22.7bn, taking sector sales back to pre-September 11 levels. This has had a knock-on effect in terms of the creation of new employment opportunities.

‘The recovery has been much stronger and faster than expected,’ said Martin Blount, recruitment manager for engineering at Rolls-Royce. ‘There has also been a drive for cleaner and more economical aircraft as more and more people fly more often for both business and pleasure.’

New communications technology is also playing a role in driving the creation of jobs. An example of this is Thales UK’s aerospace business, which is seeking systems engineers with a background in communications on civilian aircraft. New staff are being recruited to work on the upgrading of aircraft with the next generation of satellite-based networking.

According to the company, this integration will allow the creation of an ‘office in the sky’, using existing aircraft communications infrastructure to provide e-mail and internet access, video-conferencing facilities and file transfer capability to aircraft passengers.

‘We are looking for people with experience of satellite communications, particularly Inmarsat skills,’ said Steve Ayres, head of systems engineering at Thales UK’s aerospace business. ‘They will be working on everything from commercial airliners to business jets.’

Work with the company’s first customer began six months ago but Ayres said since then, demand for the system from other aircraft manufacturers has been strong — hence the need to increase the number of staff in this area.

‘We have established ourselves as specialists in the aircraft systems integration field, so we are attracting more and more work,’ said Ayres. ‘Given the increase in demand from different manufacturers and the need to integrate the equipment with different types of aircraft, we urgently require staff that are looking to grow their careers in this field.

‘Last year the team grew by about 20 per cent and we expect it to increase by around 25 per cent again this year.’

Demand for skilled staff is not limited to passenger aircraft, however. As well as recruiting in the civilian sector, the company’s military avionics business unit is also looking for engineers with good experience of communications and navigation on both rotary and fixed wing aircraft.

Yet over the past year, the UK’s aerospace industry has not been without its setbacks — most notably, the problems that have beset Airbus, causing it to cut back on the employment of contract workers. However, recruitment consultants say this snag has not had a discernable impact on overall employer confidence within the sector. As a result, recruitment is continuing apace.

According to ARM’s Fishwick, Airbus has almost stopped taking on fresh staff following the recently -announced cost over-runs and delays to delivery of the A380 superjumbo.

But he added that this aside, the market remains buoyant. ‘For companies that are not heavily dependant on Airbus, recruitment is still strong,’ he said, outlining areas in which skilled candidates are scarce.

‘There is a real shortage of stress engineers — there seems to be a lot of people looking for them but very few of those qualified in this area are looking to move,’ said Fishwick. ‘Companies have realised that they are in demand and are looking after them well. It is a very desirable area for workers to get into but it is also a very niche skill and employers are really looking for employees that can get themselves up and running in a position straight away.’

This lack of stress engineers is being noted by those recruiting directly as well as by external agencies. Caroline Taylor, human resources operations manager for Aircelle, part of the SAFRAN Group, said that like other companies within the aerospace sector, the firm is experiencing difficulties in finding stress engineering staff. ‘There is a skills shortage in the north-west in particular,’ said Taylor.

‘However, across all the roles there is a lot of competition within the industry for skills. We currently have vacancies for stress engineers, manufacturing engineers, quality system engineers, production quality assurance and senior quality assurance engineers,’ she added.

‘The demand for us is being created by a need to replace individuals that have been promoted internally, where we need to fill their roles. Other spaces have come from expansion in the quality teams.’

Recognising that competition for quality employees is tough, the company has reviewed and improved its range of employee benefits, believing these may give Aircelle the edge in catching the eye of the best candidates.

‘We have been working within a retained recruitment assignment with a specialised agency in the fields of quality and engineering,’ said Taylor. ‘We have also been working internally on the contractual benefits that employees can enjoy at Aircelle. Childcare vouchers, employee discount schemes and flexitime are three examples introduced in the past few months to retain our current employees and also attract new applicants.’

Meanwhile, following last year’s recruitment drive in the Derby area, Rolls-Royce is now planning a similar operation in the west of the country in the coming months. ‘This time last year we mounted a major recruitment drive to cover vacancies within the UK, hiring 150 people with a range of skill types,’ said Rolls-Royce’s Blount.

‘We are still looking for staff, particularly mechanical, design and stress engineers, as well as manufacturing and electrical engineers. As well as advertising, we are about to hold a major recruitment event near our second largest UK site in Bristol. Aerospace markets are looking pretty buoyant and we expect to recruit around 200 engineers this year but it could turn out to be more.’