Flight path: aerospace career guide for graduate engineers

Aerospace is one of the UK’s most important and most exciting engineering sectors, offering graduates a wealth of job opportunities across the country.

Why work in aerospace?

It’s one of the most exciting and varied industries in the UK

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The UK helps make the world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380.

Whether you want to help usher in a new age of unmanned aircraft, develop the world’s most efficient passenger jets, or make future space missions a reality, the career options in the UK’s rapidly evolving aerospace sector are unlike any other.

It’s also one the country’s strongest and most important sectors

The £20bn industry – the world’s second largest after the US – employs around 250,000 people in thousands of specialist companies, ranging from small component manufacturers  to international heavyweights that design and build entire aircraft.

As such, it’s one of the UK’s most successful industries, and so important to the economy that the government has created a special industrial strategy – the Aerospace Growth Partnership – to help secure its future.

It’s in desperate need of young engineers

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Thousands of extra young engineers are needed in the aerospace sector.

Part of this strategy means making sure the industry has the most innovative engineers it can get its hands on to keep British firms at the cutting edge of technology. The move towards more environmentally friendly aircraft is creating particular engineering challenges in materials, engine design, electronics and aerodynamics.

Almost a third of companies are thought to be looking for new employees at any one time – higher than for most manufacturing sectors. But because of the high proportion of older engineers in the sector who are due to retire, an extra 3,000 young people are thought to be needed in the next eight years – on top of the 5,000 that will be recruited at current rates.

What does the UK aerospace industry actually do?

A huge amount is the short answer. The UK has a 17% share of the world’s aerospace market, which equates to an awful lot of airliners, fighter jets, helicopters and satellites – and the components and systems that comprise them.

It helps build the world’s biggest passenger planes

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The wings for the world’s largest passenger plane, the A380, are built in Wales.

The UK no longer builds complete passenger aircraft but it does design and manufacture almost all of the key components involved in putting a plane together, with particular expertise in wings and engines but also landing gear and fuel systems.

UK-based firms have had significant involvement in the most prominent new civil aircraft of recent times. Most notably, the UK arm of the world’s second largest aerospace firm, Airbus, designs and manufactures the wings for the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the A380.

But the UK is also well-placed for airline companies’ growing preference for medium-sized craft, producing the wings for the new Airbus A350 XWB and a host of components for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the world’s first airliner to be made primarily from composite materials.

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Rolls-Royce sells jet engines to most of the world’s airlines.

Rolls-Royce has become the world’s second largest aircraft engine manufacturer by supplying variants of its Trent turbofan engine, with its complex three-spool design of hollow titanium fanblades, for all of these aircraft. And the UK remains at the cutting edge of engine design with companies such as Reaction Engines, which is developing a hybrid rocket engine that could power a new generation of space planes.

There is also major expertise in metallic and composite aerostructures through the likes of Bombardier – the world’s third largest airline manufacturer – and the homegrown success story of major component supplier GKN Aerospace, which is involved in almost every civil and military fixed and rotary wing aircraft in production and development today.

It’s at the forefront of fighter jet and military drone technology

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is is packed with UK-made components.

It’s not just passenger planes where the UK excels: we also help make some of the most advanced fighter jets in the world, most notably the new US Air Force’s F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will also be used by the RAF and numerous other NATO members.

Britain’s BAE Systems is a principal subcontractor on the F35 – which is the world’s biggest defence project – responsible for a range of components including the aft fuselage, vertical and horizontal tail and wing tips and fuel system. It also designs and builds large sections of the Eurofighter Typhoon, the current fighter of choice for most of Europe’s largest air forces.

Airbus and Rolls-Royce also have involvement in the defence sphere, making, respectively, the wings for the A400m military transporter and engines for around a quarter of the word’s military fleet.

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Britain designs and builds helicopters such as the Agusta Westland AW169.

On top of this, Europe’s primary missile developer, MBDA, carries out both R&D and production here. And the UK is a major producer of military helicopters thanks to the presence of design and manufacturing firm Agusta Westland.

The future of military aircraft, however, looks likely to be very different and UK industry is already playing a major role in the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) or “drones”.

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The UK has its own advanced military stealth drone programme, “Taranis”.

The British Army is currently trialling a fleet of remotely pilot Watchkeeper surveillance drones, built in the UK by UAV Tactical Systems. Airbus Defence and Space also recently took ownership of the experimental solar-powered drone Zephyr, originally designed in the UK and now being developed for long-term surveillance.

Perhaps the most advanced British UAV, however, is BAE’s Taranis, an unmanned stealth warplane demonstrator currently under development, which could lead to fighter drones operating in the RAF from 2030.

It’s quietly become a major player in space technology

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The UK is involved in numerous space projects including the ExoMars rover mission.

Though most people probably don’t realise, the UK space sector is a £9bn and rapidly growing industry that the government is ploughing over a billion pounds into supporting through the UK Space Agency.

Its biggest presence is in the satellite market. Around 40 per cent of the world’s commercial telecoms satellites are made in the UK, primarily by Airbus Defence and Space but also by its small-satellite subsidiary SSTL in Surrey. The country also boasts big players on the satellite operations sphere such as Inmarsat, which was involved in the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner MH370.

However, the UK is also making major strides in technology for Europe’s scientific space missions, producing both hardware and software for the ExoMars rover, the Gaia space telescope and the Lisa Pathfinder craft that will test gravitational wave detection equipment.

So what kind of jobs are on offer?

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The UK is at the forefront of new technologies such as additive manufacturing.

There are jobs in the aerospace industry for every kind of engineer (except civil engineers). The need to save fuel has led to the greater use of composite materials instead of metals and electronics to replace mechanical systems, meaning electrical, electronic and materials engineers are in particular demand.

There’s also a high requirement for engineers who understand stress and fatigue, for systems engineers to manage increasingly complex combinations of technology, for physicists with expertise in aerodynamic modelling and software designers to meet the growing digitisation of aircraft systems.

And where are they?

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GKN Aerospace engineers at work in Filton, Bristol.

The major players all run highly oversubscribed and competitive graduate programmes but they are also surrounded by thousands of small and medium-sized companies that regularly recruit engineering graduates.

Aerospace has its biggest presence in the South West of England, largely clustered around Filton in Bristol where you can find Airbus UK’s primary design and innovation base, and a number of major firms have facilities including GKN, Rolls-Royce, BAE and MBDA, as well as the National Composites Centre research base.

Other local players include AgustaWestland in Yeovil, Somerset, and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, which produces landing gear for (among others) the Boeing Dreamliner.

The next biggest aerospace hotpot is the North West of England, primarily thanks to BAE’s jet fighter factories in Salmesbury and Warton in Lancashire but also a handfull of other supply chain and international firms. This is closely followed by the East Midlands where Rolls-Royce manufactures its Trent engines in Derby.

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North west England is home the F-35 factory.

In the South East of England you’ll find Airbus’s space division, primarily in Stevenage but also with a facility in Portsmouth and the subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL). MBDA also has its R&D centre in Stevenage and the ejector seat-manufacturer Martin Baker is based in Uxbridge just outside London.

Scotland has particular expertise in avionics (aviation electronics) with outposts of big international firms such as Selex in Edinburgh – a specialist in aircraft radar systems – and Raytheon in Fife. The country also hosts a major component supplier in MB Aerospace in Motherwell, several Rolls-Royce factories, and numerous innovative small firms such as mini-satellite maker Clyde Space.

Wales also has a substantial aerospace presence due to the Airbus wing facility and several other firms at Broughton, but also GE Aviation’s engine maintenance centre in Nantgarw in South Wales – the largest such base in Europe.

And in Northern Ireland, Bombardier’s aerostructures design and manufacturing operations form the country’s largest manufacturing business, while other firms both international (e.g. Raytheon) and local (e.g. B/E Aerospace) also form a major presence.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides .