The sky’s the limit

Even in tough times the UK aerospace sector is still seeking skilled engineers to work on a wide variety of projects. Julia Pierce reports.


Even as some sections of the economy show signs of deep financial trouble, the UK aerospace sector is holding its own and, in some areas, still providing growth.

On the space side of the business, following a very busy period for recruitment in 2007 and early this year, during which between 600 and 700 roles were advertised and filled, EADS Astrium is looking for around 120 further engineers to fill vacancies across the company, based at two sites — Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and Portsmouth in Hampshire.

‘We have a broad range of positions available across five major areas. These include mechanical, electrical, systems and software, manufacturing and commercial disciplines,’ said recruitment manager Andrew Scott. ‘A unique factor concerning the vacancies is that only four are the same, with the other 116 totally different. This means we are seeking a large range of diversity in applicants’ personal qualities and experience.’

Despite the recession, Scott said that Astrium’s order books were full owing to demand for satellite technology by projects including Galileo and Skynet. ‘We are also seeing demand from the telecommunications and digital television sectors through projects such as Hotbird and Astra II,’ he added. ‘With the UK’s switchover to digital television everything must be in place.’

Meanwhile, air traffic control is also expanding. ‘We are always looking to fill engineering vacancies, and we also want graduates with electrical, electronics, communications, systems and software skills,’ said Stuart Whiteley, programme delivery manager at air traffic control services provider NATS. ‘We are always bringing people with new ideas into the workforce, and offer a two-year training scheme that can form a springboard to Chartership.’

Jon Rance, senior consultant at Jonathan Lee Recruitment said: ‘The aerospace sector remains reasonably strong for the time being and we are still seeing a good level of recruitment activity. However, aerospace tends to follow automotive and manufacturing by nine months, so the downturn is likely to hit the industry sometime next year.

‘In addition, we have increasingly seen companies reviewing their recruitment needs over recent weeks, which is likely to have been triggered by the recession.’

He added that the order books for larger companies such as Boeing and Airbus were looking strong at the moment, particularly in their major market areas such as the middle and Far East. Meanwhile, there were also a number of large programmes going ahead, namely for the Boeing 747, Airbus A380, A350 and A400M, which would continue to demand talented aerospace engineers for the foreseeable future.

Airbus is currently recruiting motivated and highly-skilled people with experience in composite and metallic structures, systems and aerodynamic design. Owing to new development, in particular the A350 programme, opportunities exist for experienced engineers in airframe design and stress engineering.

Skills required cover metallic and composite, airframe fatigue and damage tolerance, landing gear, fuel and other aircraft systems, aircraft architecture and integration and electrical systems design and installation.

‘Over the years Airbus has gradually introduced more and more composite materials into its aircraft. Up to 60 per cent of the A350 airframe — an unprecedented proportion — will comprise weight-saving composite materials,’ said Mick Fleming, head of employment and training.

‘The group is determined to remain ahead in terms of technology innovation. Through research and development, Airbus in the UK intends to continue playing a key role in shaping the aircraft of the future; and vital to making this happen is having the right skills in place’, he added.

‘We are looking for individuals who have an innovative and proactive spirit, as well as strong project management skills, the ability to work in and lead multi-functional and transnational teams, and a flexible and adaptable approach to change.’

According to the company, Airbus has a backlog of around 3,700 aircraft orders, so any slowdown will not have a significant impact on production. ‘It’s worth keeping in mind that the last three years were record ones for the aerospace industry, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if order levels returned to more usual levels,’ said an Airbus spokesperson.

There are also large defence-related contracts driving recruitment. ‘A number of big projects are going ahead, such as the construction of two large aircraft carriers, in addition to the MoD’s helicopter programme Future Lynx, and its FRES fighting vehicle programme,’ said Rance.

‘A major contract has been won by NP Aerospace in Coventry, to improve and modify fighting vehicles for the Army. We are also seeing ongoing recruitment at companies such as Rolls-Royce, EADS Astrium, Goodrich, GE Aviation, Thales, Messier-Dowty and Honeywell,’ he added.

‘However, there is clear evidence that the volumes are dropping as companies are re-evaluating the skills they actually need in this tightening market.’

As always, there are some skills that are in particularly short supply, meaning that engineers with these qualifications should have little problem should they wish to seek fresh employment.

‘Current demand is for stress and design engineers, technical supply chain specialist and fatigue engineers. These are areas where we are still experiencing skills shortages, with many companies looking to Europe, including Italy, Spain and France, to fill the gaps,’ said Rance.

‘There is also a continued demand for manufacturing and production engineers, with manufacturers aiming to retain their core engineering capability while cutting back on management and project management roles,’ he added.

Demand for staff also varies according to location. ‘Strong UK areas are the south-west, where Rolls-Royce and Airbus are based, and the north-west, UK home of BAE Systems,’ said Rance. ‘Pockets of activity can also be found in the Home Counties and Hampshire.’

Although there is a prospect of some reduction in recruitment, and even staffing levels, due to the recession, most types of suitably experienced engineers are in relatively short supply. and with a number of projects ongoing, aerospace professionals may have less to worry about than those working in other sectors.

According to EADS Astrium’s Scott, the space sector shows no sign of orders slowing, meaning that the longer term prospects for those employees look set to remain healthy. ‘The nature of our products mean they are mainly purchased by large organisations and governments. Bidding for new contracts is still continuing and as far as we can see, the impact of the economic downturn has been limited to a psychological effect,’ said Scott.

‘We are very busy and this does not look as though it is likely to slow down. With the speed that technology is moving, and the need to use satellites for everything from communications to Earth science, it does not look like the requirement for satellites is going to decline.’

Likewise, NATS’ Whiteley said that although the volume of air passengers might decrease, the UK’s dependence on air travel would remain, keeping his side of the business buoyant. ‘There will always be freight, food shipment, the flying public and business travellers. And even if numbers decrease we are in a position where we will always be required,’ he said.

Even if a particular company was affected, or should the industry eventually succumb to the pressures of a prolonged period of depression, aerospace engineers should still fare well, according to Jonathan Lee Recruitment’s Rance.

‘It is worth mentioning that aerospace skills are quite transferable and there are opportunities in related industries such as defence and nuclear,’ he said. ‘There is optimism of growth in the UK civil nuclear sector where good salaries can be found.’