Flight path to work

The aerospace sector in the UK is buoyant and long-term prospects look good. As Julia Pierce explains, finding the right candidates is often a job in itself


The UK aerospace sector is thriving thanks to the number of large contracts underway in both the civil and military domains.

Projects as diverse as the Watchkeeper UAV and the Airbus A380 are generating employment opportunities for engineers across the board during their planning and development, while sustained demand from foreign orders is also keeping the sector buoyant.

As usual, the employers’ main difficulty appears to be in finding people with the requisite skills for the job.

Advanced Resource Managers (ARM) a Hampshire recruitment and training consultant, sources staff for companies specialising in avionics that operate across the sector.

‘The market is very buoyant at the moment,’ said Sultan Mahmud, senior consultant of ARM’s technology and science division. ‘The prime contract companies are therefore employing the service of smaller companies to undertake manufacturing and design services.’

Luckily for those working in aerospace the long-term prospects for such staff look good with many major projects still at an early stage in their lifecycle, meaning there will be plenty of work on these over the next seven to 10 years at least.

Mahmud said the skills most in demand are those in systems engineering, software engineering — both Real Time, embedded C or C++ — and for digital and analogue electronics engineers. ‘Mechanical engineers are also very sought after including stress engineering, hydraulics and pneumatics-experienced candidates,’ he added.

However, finding such candidates can be hard. ‘General growth of the company means that we are looking for people across the board,’ said Marshall Aerospace human resources officer Deborah Liddington. ‘There seems to be a national shortage of engineers for aerospace, especially as the field requires specialist skills.’

The Cambridge company is currently seeking stress engineers, avionics design specialists and aircraft electricians. Manufacturing engineers with either mechanical or electrical skills are also in high demand, along with structural and post design engineers and system design personnel.

Like Marshall, Lockheed Martin’s UK operation is expanding. This includes projects such as the building of the human-machine interface for the Royal Navy’s Merlin helicopters. ‘There has been quite a bit of growth in the UK and we are excited by this,’ said recruitment and diversity programme manager Cheryl Baron. ‘In particular we’re looking for software and systems engineers, as well as program and project managers. These need to be both flexible and adaptable, as well as having a degree of vision that will allow them to grow with us.’

New projects and additional orders for existing systems means BAE Systems is also in the midst of a general recruitment drive. The company took on around 1,000 new staff last year, around a third of which were engineers. It anticipates that the same number will be recruited in 2007, with an increase in 2008.

Drivers include potential export contracts for the Eurofighter Typhoon, and because the aircraft has entered service more support staff are needed. Other notable projects that are recruiting include the Nimrod MRA4 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

‘Our staff get involved in all aspects of the lifecycle of the business,’ said Mike Crompton, head of engineering resource solutions for BAE Systems’ Military Air Solutions group. ‘As well as expertise and performance, applicants need good judgement and the ability to work within a multi-disciplinary team solving complex problems. There is also a need for softer skills such as an ability to develop others in the team.’

Another company anticipating a large number of forthcoming vacancies is the Systems division of GE Aviation, formerly Smiths Aerospace, which is working on designing and producing a variety of electronic, electrical and mechanical systems for projects including the Boeing Dreamliner and JSF.

This will require the recruitment of many engineers from numerous disciplines, offering significant career development opportunities and the chance to work on leading-edge technologies, as well as varied platforms.

The company is looking for systems engineers across all stages of the lifecycle — particularly software engineers in all areas, especially model-based design.

Good systems engineers, are recognised as being particularly hard to come by, along with analogue engineers. Although the company said it has recently done well in terms of attracting graduates, at the higher end they have found it more difficult to find the right people.

Structural engineers are also proving hard to find. ‘In my department the focus tends to be mostly on avionics, stress and structural engineers,’ said John Dunaway, head of the transport and infrastructure division at ARM. ‘The latter in particular are at a premium at the moment, and we’ve a small number of vacancies that are really old, even though we’re pretty good at filling roles.’

According to employers, there is a severe lack of engineering talent which is puzzling because to gain security clearance for many projects in the aerospace sector, employees must originate from within the UK or the EU.

While the number of such nationals with engineering skills is declining, a rising number of potential candidates have origins from outside Europe. ‘Over the last two years or so we’ve seen an apparent shortage of good home-grown talent, including systems engineers, and electronics and software engineers,’ said ARM’s Mahmud. ‘Many of the military avionics companies in the UK require individuals with security clearance due to the nature of the projects, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable candidates who can be placed with these clients.’

The employers themselves, who are now attempting to find ways around the problem, echo this view. ‘GE Aviation requires individuals that are able to achieve security clearance for many projects due to their nature and final customers,’ said Dugald McIntosh, service delivery manager for Elan, which manages permanent and contract recruitment for the Systems division of GE Aviation.

‘We are competing for people from a small talent pool and, in most cases, have the added challenge to recruit people who can obtain security clearance,’ said McIntosh. ‘The pool of people who have the skills and can achieve this clearance is not expanding at the rate we need it to, and we are working with the business to open up many more opportunities to people who would not meet MoD security requirements.

‘GE is very aware of these sourcing challenges and is helping us maximise the attractiveness of these roles. For example, the company now offers a final salary pension scheme in marked contrast with many other engineering firms.’

While security clearance for the most sensitive projects may still be a bar to many engineers born outside of the EU, opportunities for them within the aerospace industry are growing.

However, for the remainder of the candidates a lack of applicants means that opportunities to work on cutting-edge projects are many, as ARM’s Mahmud explained. ‘If good systems engineers or software engineers with skills including requirements capture, DOORS, UML, C, C++, Ada, and systems design become available, it is possible to find them potential opportunities with a dozen or more high-profile clients,’ he said.