The front line of opportunity for engineers

The recession hasn’t dissuaded the global defence sector from recruiting talented engineers. Julia Pierce reports

The demands of operations around the world and an insatiable appetite for technical innovation mean the global defence sector remains more buoyant than many and a key employer of talented engineers.

Atkins is a good example of this resilience. The company works across the full spectrum of the UK MoD’s systems and facilities, offering safety, mechanical, systems, civil and structural engineering services. ‘We are always looking to strengthen our broad capabilities but we currently have a particular need for safety and mechanical engineers, including graduates,’ said Dr Robert Bristow, strategy director, defence. ‘We have experienced significant growth in recent years, to the extent that we are now the largest ‘independent’ engineering consultancy in the UK defence market. However, our growth is limited by the number of staff we have, which is why we are looking to recruit more technical and engineering professionals. In particular, they are needed to support areas of business where the MoD is acquiring equipment for operations and developing its core infrastructure.’

The company operates across all major defence environments — sea, land, air, information/communications systems and nuclear. ‘Atkins’ technical expertise and breadth of skills mean we are well placed to continue supporting the MoD’s core programmes,’ said Bristow. ‘Meanwhile, the defence sector is seeing advanced technology being applied in increasingly complex and integrated systems, which means it offers good long-term prospects for engineers with the right skills sets.’

Certain types of speciality are particularly sought after in the defence arena. ‘Systems design and engineering,  RF [radio frequency] and communications specialists, programme/project management, design and stress engineering, and business development roles are in the most demand,’ said Jonathan Lee, chairman of Jonathan Lee Recruitment. ‘There is also a demand for more practical roles, such as vehicle technicians.’

Lee said this is being driven by a mixture of new contracts, general expansion and the need to install new technology. ‘All three factors are contributing. There is a heavy demand from companies supporting UOR [urgent operational requests], particularly in support of defence activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially in the military-vehicle sector and armour protection. Of particular interest is the significant development in the use of composite materials. There is also activity in homeland protection and more use of UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) and UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles).’

This emphasis on new technology has been adopted by EADS DS (Defence and Security) as one of the company’s key themes for future development and expansion. ‘We are emerging from a recession, which has had a knock-on effect on government spending,’ said Len Tyler, chairman of EADS DS UK and senior vice-president, development of business for Defence and Communication Systems (DCS), an integrated business unit of EADS Defence and Security division.

‘We are now investing to make ourselves a key partner in developing the national infrastructure and have recently expanded our Security Centre of Competence to further increase our cyber-security capability in the UK,’ said Tyler. ‘We are looking to work with governments to understand the threats they face and have to develop skills in areas such as forensic simulation and command control. Last year we opened up an Innovation Works facility in South Wales where we are developing a large number of engineering jobs in both basic research and applied research for a range of related areas across the spectrum.’ Tyler said these range from advanced UAVs to air-traffic control and composite materials, along with sensors and broadband bandwidth.

The company has operations in European countries, including France, Germany and Spain, and has also had great success in the Middle East markets, as well as the US. ‘We have a very widely spread portfolio,’ said Tyler. To encourage new talent, EADS has tripled the size of its graduate recruitment programme over the past few years. Participants have the chance to work on high-profile projects such as Skynet and are also offered the opportunity to gain experience within EADS’ overseas operations, such as the border security programme in Saudi Arabia.

BAE Systems is also looking to recruit graduates to underpin the skills base for the company’s future. Richard Hamer, education director at BAE Systems, said: ‘This year we have taken on 230 graduates, together with a number of apprentices in design and manufacturing, and the majority are engineers. On the graduate side we are particularly looking for people with systems and software engineering skills. Despite the current economic climate, we are retaining our commitment to recruitment and are expanding our operations through work, such as our contract to maintain aircraft on airbases through a partnership with the RAF. We also have ongoing work on projects such as the JSF, Typhoon, and Astute submarine.’

Next year, there are plans to take on even more graduates. ‘We are looking at a figure of around 280 people and hopefully not less than 250,’ said Hamer. ‘We have a number of solid commitments to projects, so we need people to fill the vacancies this creates. The area of the company with the largest recruitment need is the systems side of the business, although naval architecture and the Type 45 destroyer is also creating demand, as well as the need for software engineering across the business.’

Marco Edwards is division manager for aerospace, automotive and rail at technical and professional recruitment agency Matchtech, covering the defence sector among others. ‘In the aerospace sector over the last 12 months our commercial desk has been less viable than that for defence,’ he said. ‘Rotary craft have been seeing a lot of action in Iraq and Afghanistan and so need maintenance, while the ones going over there need preparation. On the automotive side, there are 8x8s, 6x6s and Land Rovers needing maintenance — again because of their use in conflicts abroad.’ Edwards added that electronics and software engineers were in particular demand, as were those with helicopter experience.

According to some, there are signs that the nature of the defence market and the type of work found there is entering a period of change, and that employers are altering their recruitment practices to reflect this. ‘We are definitely seeing a change in the defence market, especially in the UK,’ said Dugald McIntosh, operations manager at recruitment specialist Elan Defence. ‘The market is moving away from traditional research and development work on big defence projects, and is becoming more involved in the provision of services. There will be fewer five- or 10-year projects. At the moment, defence companies seem to have been affected less than other industries by recession, as the MoD’s budget is committed until 2012. However, this will change in the next round of spending.’

This analysis is echoed by Jonathan Lee. ‘On the whole, the defence sector has weathered the economic downturn well compared with most other industries,’ he said. ‘The sector supporting conventional warfare should continue to be buoyant but the need to cut government spending in most countries, particularly the UK and probably the US, will lead to a number of major capital-spend projects being delayed or reduced, and one or two possibly cancelled.’

While McIntosh sees the number of large, long-term projects declining, in his view other areas are compensating for this. ‘The big growth this year has been in urgent operational requirements such as upgrades to existing equipment in theatre, including communications systems installed in armoured vehicles. Compared to normal, these are very fast- moving projects and companies need to ensure they are ready to operate in this space.’ In the more immediate term, McIntosh expects defence firms to look for increased flexibility. ‘If they have a large number of specialist engineers but the projects for these are not coming up, they cannot be redeployed. It is more attractive to have access to more flexible recruitment solutions or look to outsourcing or contractors, sharing risk with partners,’ he said.

Despite this, the demands of warfare and peacekeeping operations mean that innovation will continue to drive the industry, creating plenty of opportunities for engineers. ‘Technology will continue to evolve with greater emphasis on UAVs and robotics to reduce the risk of casualties in the field,’ said Lee. ‘The long-term prospects for engineers working in the defence industry are very good and compare well with other industries. Defence has always been at the cutting edge of technology and will remain so,’ he said.