Sky’s the limit

Engineers in the aerospace industry are commanding ever higher salaries, reports George Paloczi-Horvath

The recruitment market in the aerospace industry is going ballistic, according to recruitment consultants. Good engineers on contract can virtually command the salaries they want, while there is a rush to snap up new graduates. There is also evidence of major recruitment drives by overseas aerospace firms in Britain.

British Aerospace (BAe) and most recruitment companies say the upturn has been particularly noticeable in the past 12-18 months. John Packham of Graphic Engineering Design in Bristol says there has been a big increase in recruitment because of new Airbus projects, like the A340-500 and 600 launched last month, for which his firm is recruiting people to work at BAe Airbus at Filton and its nearby subcontractors.

The emphasis is on finding design engineers experienced in programmes like Cadds5, Catia and Autocad, and on stress engineers. Packham says engineers trained in some CAD systems used to earn £18 an hour but are now getting £28 or more.

Another recruitment company says it hears BAe is telling stress engineers in Brough that if they are offered more money elsewhere they should talk to BAe to see if the offer can be bettered. Some designers are allegedly leaving to take UK jobs at two and a half times their current salary, or up to £50,000.

The market for aerospace graduate recruits is also expanding with ever higher starting salaries. The Association for Graduate Recruiters said this month that one in 10 students who graduate this summer will command a salary of at least £20,000. Job opportunities for graduates rose by 13.1% in 1997 and will probably increase by 18.5% this summer, the AGR said.

Why has the UK aerospace engineer become such a valued commodity? The simple answer is that the market is booming, with confirmation of Eurofighter’s production phase prompting a major recruitment drive by BAe and its subcontractors, and with Airbus Industrie – in which BAe has a 20% stake – looking forward to a 30% jump in output this year.

Mark Pennington of recruitment firm Inbis in Preston says there has been a large upturn in contract engineer recruitment in the last year. It is concentrating on hiring people for BAe sites in Preston, Salmesbury, Brough and Prestwick, with the emphasis on contract engineers to replace permanent BAe staff being switched to Eurofighter work, as well as for their subcontractors.

Pennington says the drive to find people is made harder because many experienced engineers who left aerospace companies to work for automotive firms when the recession ended are earning well and will not be easily tempted back.

BAe’s major effort to recruit engineers last year failed to find the required number of people. One recruitment firm adds that a £250,000 US drive to get people back from Boeing also failed.

Last March Sir Dick Evans, BAe chief executive, said he was worried there were not enough good graduates in Britain and BAe was having to recruit abroad. It recruited 80% of the 600 graduates it wanted in 1996. This month BAe said it is looking to hire 400-500 engineering graduates each year.

Rolls-Royce recruited around 140 white-collar technicians and graduates in 1997 and trained 40 external recruits in engineering disciplines. It is also taking on staff on fixed-term contracts and agency people. New graduate recruits are understood to be on starting salaries of about £15,500.

While aerospace firms need good graduates, recruitment firm Capital Aviation in London says: ‘In the last year there has been a rather dramatic demand for experienced engineers, those with 10-30 years’ experience. This has led to a dramatic increase in their salaries within the UK, as the same skills are still in high demand.’

The firm estimates around 2,000 qualified and experienced aerospace design engineers are being sought for contract positions in Britain.

Looming over the UK industry is the threat posed by foreign aerospace firms. There is a view that Boeing will not sit quietly if or when Airbus launches its A3XX super jumbo project, but that the US giant will seek to vacuum British talent. US hourly rates for engineers jumped from $45 to $60 and Boeing is still looking for senior design engineers in Britain. In 1997 Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon together were looking for 10,000 engineers and technicians.

Meanwhile, one specialist says: ‘UK aerospace engineers also know the next 10 years are going to be the most vibrant time for the industry world-wide. The risk for Britain is that a squeeze is developing between the pressures posed by the better paid, but undertrained graduate, and the very experienced and vastly overpaid engineer.’