The big call-up

Despite the credit crunch, the UK defence sector is bucking the general trend and recruiting a wide range of engineering and technical support staff. Julia Pierce reports.

Although the economy may be stalling, it is still the case that engineering staff are in high demand.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the defence sector, where demand for technologies and engineering staff to support the UK’s overseas commitments is still great from both public bodies and private enterprise.

With the UK’s armed forces increasingly being deployed around the world, the defence industry is the second largest in the world after the US in terms of employment and turnover, according to the Defence Manufacturers Association. Employing more than 350,000, this sector is responsible for producing new technologies to maintain the military’s competitive advantage. The Defence Engineering and Science Group (DESG) has a very wide variety of projects and so is currently seeking graduates from a range of engineering and some science disciplines.

This includes mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, aerospace engineering, marine engineering, civil engineering and physics. The organisation’s website contains a large list of acceptable degrees and experience, although others outside of this will also be considered. The DESG is particularly keen to gain and train younger members of its team, shaping them specifically for the varied roles it can provide.

‘Apart from the necessary degree, we are looking for people of good character who have a genuine interest in working at the cutting edge of technology,’ said the DESG. ‘But just as importantly, we want graduates who are interested in developing themselves personally and professionally. We are the only employer we are aware of that, over and above a salary, will invest over £20,000 a year in individual training and development, so the whole “developing people” is very real in the DESG, underpinning everything we do. This huge investment in every graduate means you can get to chartered status within four years of joining us.’

The organisation has a corporate development scheme for engineering and science graduates seeking a career with the MoD. The big picture is that vacancies on this scheme arise from the requirement to defend the UK and its interests.

This creates an ongoing opportunity for 110 graduates to be taken on each year. It is a fully paid job, and according to the DESG is probably the UK’s best graduate development scheme for engineers and scientists.

Those who are successful in acquiring a place face an accelerated path to chartered status in their engineering or science profession, along with development opportunities that are not available in private industry.

There is an opportunity to work on MoD projects that are fascinating, valuable, unique and sometimes highly classified, together with a pension scheme, 25 days annual leave, 10.5 public and privilege holidays as well as the chance for international travel.

For those who wish to gain a taste of working in the defence sector but may not be ready to do this full time, the Territorial Army is looking for engineers to take up casual contracts. ‘We are looking for people as what we call spare-time soldiers,’ said Captain Terry Gillard, regimental operations support director for the Territorial Army in Nottinghamshire.

‘These are people who are qualified as construction, mechanical and electrical engineers between Masters and Chartered Engineer level down to qualified tradesmen and artisans. We are seeking a fairly wide range of skills,’ he added.

Following the government’s Future Army Structure (FAS) review, Gillard’s unit is expanding from 199 to 431 people, hence the major recruitment drive. Around 160 new recruits are currently being sought, including support workers such as signallers and clerical staff, although around half of the positions are for engineers and technical roles.

There are also vacancies for specialists. One eight-strong team within the unit, for example, has been developed to deal with the construction of roads. Other dedicated teams are for water, fuel, power generation and distribution, and railways and ports. ‘Port specialists are especially hard to find,’ said Gillard.

‘All the positions are based in Nottinghamshire, but we do recruit nationally.’ Those signing up spend 19 days a year with the TA to carry out their training, plus two weekend, although there is the potential to do more if they, their families and employers are supportive.

On top of this, there is a two-week annual camp to places such as Cyprus, Gibraltar and Brunei. ‘There are operations or deployments in foreign regions in which the engineers would go to military establishments to carry out work for us and so utilise their skills in a military context,’ said Gillard.

‘It is a chance to simulate working on operations, although there is also the opportunity to deploy in regions such as Iraq and Afghanistan — such involvement is currently optional.’

But it is not just the public sector that is looking to take on more staff. One private company that is bucking the trend of downsizing and cost cutting is Lockheed Martin. It is currently recruiting a large number of engineers with a variety of skills including electrical, environmental, mechanical, systems, software, and safety and reliability experience.

Over the last two to three years, the company has expanded rapidly in the UK, making several acquisitions, such as INSYS Group, a UK-based diversified integrator of military communications systems, weapons systems and advanced future concepts development, and HMT Vehicles, a developer of designs for military vehicles that have been incorporated into light to medium high mobility wheeled military vehicles in the US and UK.

Lockheed Martin is now concentrating on bringing its wealth of technological ability and capability into the UK. Engineers joining the company would therefore be working at the cutting edge of technology inside an organisation that covers solutions ranging from postal recognition systems that are now used by the Royal Mail, to tactical and fighter aircraft, the Merlin helicopter, submarine technologies and air traffic control systems.

With such a range of experiences on offer, engineers have the opportunity to gain a highly portable and broad skill set and need have no fear of being pigeon-holed into a single area of expertise for their working life.

These recruitment drives are not just the remnants of past programmes, but are new initiatives that will provide good long-range prospects for the engineers that apply. The long-term prospects for applicants thinking of joining the DESG are excellent, said a spokesman.

‘The MoD is known as “Engineering Heaven” and the range of engineering roles is incredibly wide, which means that with the MoD you can change jobs without changing employer,’ said a group spokesman. ‘With the MoD you get professional development opportunities that we believe are second to none.’

Lockheed Martin agreed. ‘By the end of this year we are looking to bring in between 75 and 100 people, though not all will be engineers,’ said the company’s Cheryl Baron. ‘We are experiencing a lot of growth and expansion and this is something that is set to continue for the next couple of years.’

Meanwhile, Baron noted that engineers within the defence field are still in high demand, meaning that the sector is definitely bucking the general economic trend. All this is good news for the engineers working within or moving into this area.

‘There is still a lot of demand for the skills we are looking for both from within the industry and outside,’ she said. ‘Despite everything, the market is pretty competitive.’