inside a helicopter cockpit

Aerospace career opportunities allow young engineers to fly high

While aerospace is one of the most exciting and glamorous areas of engineering, it’s also proving itself to be extremely resilient throughout the recession when it comes to providing opportunities for young engineers.

Employment levels were maintained throughout the economic downturn and this included the recruitment of graduates and apprentices. Graham Chisnall, managing director of aerospace and operations at ADS Group, the trade organisation for the aerospace, defence and security industries, goes on to explain that while budget cuts have affected the defence side of the industry (even though there are still significant programmes going on) the civil side is positively booming.

Demand is there

One of the reasons for this is that the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and the Middle East can’t get enough airliners, he says.

“Airbus and Boeing have just announced unprecedented production rate increases and are developing new products that will come into service over the next year or two,” he explains. “It’s a very buoyant time and the major contractors have got very substantial order books." 

Career opportunities

As far as career opportunities go though, it isn’t only about increased demand. Many of the future career paths opening up for young engineers are also due to the design and manufacturing revolution that is sweeping through the industry. With more use of carbon fibre composite for aircraft building, advanced computational software bringing major benefits to the systems side and many traditional hydraulics changing to all electrics, Chisnall claims the industry offers huge scope for those entering it today.

“Although the new Boeing 787 and Bombardier CSeries will look fairly conventional to the untrained eye when they enter service, they will actually be radically different under the skin,” he says. “This challenges a whole host of things. It challenges the design engineering skills because they are designed in a radically different way with radically different technology and although this is less remarked upon, they are also built in a radically different way.”

Exciting developments

Elsewhere there are some extremely exciting developments in the industry in the UK. AgustaWestland, the Anglo-Italian helicopter company, has formally announced that its UK arm will be involved in a new commercial helicopter programme (previously it largely focused on the military sector for UK and export markets). The twin-engine AW169, launched at the Farnborough International Airshow last year, will be partly designed and built at the company’s Yeovil base and features a new generation, advanced aerodynamic rotor design as well as a mass of other state-of-the art features. Its eco-friendly design also makes extensive use of composites.

AgustaWestland predicts a potential market for around 1,000 aircraft across 20 years. The helicopter will be used for a wide range of commercial and public service applications including air ambulance, law enforcement, search and rescue, VIP and passenger transport.

Future graduates and apprentices may indeed find they cut their teeth on this programme. The company recruits up to seven engineering and up to four manufacturing engineering graduates each year as well as around 16 apprentices.

Carol Haydon, a member of the human resources team, says the company looks for graduates with aeronautical, mechanical or avionic degrees but is also interested in automotive engineering graduates, especially for its manufacturing engineering programme. A good degree isn’t the only requirement though.

“The graduate recruitment market is highly competitive so we have to look for other factors that set people apart,” she explains. “For us attitude and behaviour are just as important as knowledge and skills. On an application form we would look for voluntary work, independent travel, work experience and other extra-curricular activities.”

Make yourself stand out

Pauline Howell, vice president, talent and strategic staffing at international aerospace and defence technology and systems company Cobham, similarly says that it is essential that those applying for its two- to three-year graduate scheme are able to mark themselves out by for instance, having done an internship or held a position of responsibility at university. She says they must also demonstrate high potential, which they do by presenting a range of competences that include good teamwork and leadership skills, high emotional intelligence and a drive for excellence.

"Graduates continue on their development journey into our High Potential programmes in either leadership and/or functional excellence,” she says. “We believe they are critical talent for the future.”

Graduates will have the opportunity to work across a range of business units including those focusing on antenna systems, tactical communications, mission systems and defence systems, which all make use of best-in-class technology. They also have the opportunity to tangibly contribute to the company early on in their careers.

In his first 18 months on the graduate development programme, Andrew Fookes has worked as an antenna design engineer, a process engineer, did a stint in the executive office at Bournemouth International Airport and is now knuckling down in the company’s Aerospace and Security Division.

“In every role I’ve been given real responsibility from the start,” says Fookes, who has a mathematics degree from the University of Cambridge and an MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacturing and Management.

Gaining experience

James Prentice, who has a MEng (Hons) in Aerospace Engineering from Manchester is on the scheme, which is accredited by the Royal Aeronautical Society. On one of his placements, he was tasked with supporting the improvement and reduction in cost and lead times for a major sub-contractor involved in a small range of sub assemblies.

“The task was completed successfully during my placement and continues to show ongoing cost-savings and reduced lead times,” he says. It is now being rolled out for additional sub assemblies and other sub contractors.

No one can pretend that competition isn’t fierce in the aerospace sector and anyone interested in working in it must find ways to ensure they stand out. Chisnall advises students look at schemes such as the Year in Industry as it is often used by companies as a pre-recruitment tool.

He also says apprenticeships can be a great route in (he himself was a graduate apprentice). He also says don’t be put off if you don’t have an aerospace degree since the industry looks for good STEM-based graduates and he adds: “And I wouldn’t underplay the importance of a really good production engineering course as there is as big a revolution going on in the way these things are built as they are designed”.

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