The assembly lines may not be on the verge of grinding to a halt, or the launch pads about to be put into mothballs. But major problems in the supply of engineers in the aerospace industry are undoubtedly looming on the horizon.

For an industry whose self-image is one of thrusting achievement and pushing the technological envelope, the realities of company demographics make sobering reading.

The workforce is ageing and the point is approaching at which the number of retirees will no longer be matched by the arrival of new entrants from universities and colleges.

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Industry bodies and individual companies, particularly in the USA, are having to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that future generations of engineers will emerge from the educational system.

Despite these efforts, however, the next few years are likely to see the industry facing real problems in finding sufficient high-quality personnel to fill the gaps in its ranks.

 © Tom Campbell

This skills shortage will be one of the topics explored at the Aerospace Testing, Design & Manufacturing exhibition at Germany's New Munich Trade Fair Centre this week.

Organised by Flight's sister company Reed Exhibitions, the seventh iteration of the annual event will see students being bussed in from nearby universities to talk to companies such as EADS, Ruag Aerospace and MTU, which will have human resources personnel on hand to scan the CVs of potential recruits.

Poor Image

As is frequently the case with complex problems, there is no one reason for the looming global shortfall in aerospace engineers. Attitudes among school students and their parents, the vagaries of national educational systems and a poor or non-existent image of engineering among the general public all play a part.

The scale of the problem is outlined by Marion Blakey, chief executive of US trade body Aerospace Industries Association.

Almost 60% of the US aerospace workforce is aged 45 or over, she says, and around 25% of those are eligible for retirement now.

The problem is spread across all the industry's sectors, says Blakey. "Aerospace was a brilliant career choice in the USA for the Baby Boomers and the Second World War generation before them. They tended to come in and make a full career in the industry." However, as they begin to leave en masse, "it's time to get a fresh crop".

And that is where the problem begins. An estimated 77,000 engineers of all disciplines graduate annually in the USA. Of those, more than 20,000 are in specialisms of no interest to aerospace, while roughly another 15,000 are foreign students who immediately return home on completion of their educations.

That leaves an annual available supply of roughly 40,000 engineers. Aerospace has to fight for those potential new staff with sectors such as computing, high-end telecoms and the automotive industry.

Blakey's colleague Jeremiah Gertler, AIA's acting vice-president, national security, notes that one of AIA's member companies will require 10,000 engineers a year for the next five years to cope with the number of staff picking up their pensions.

In the UK, which has seen its manufacturing base shrink steadily since the 1980s, the problem is slightly different. Allan Cook, chief executive of Cobham and president of the Society of British Aerospace Companies, speaking at the organisation's annual conference in London in March on the skills shortage of engineers, said: "The biggest single challenge is the lack of an engineering skills base [in the UK]. Engineering graduates are choosing other professions such as IT and financial services."

And Thorsten Möllmann, EADS vice-president, talent and executive management/human resources marketing, cites the general decline in birth-rates in western European countries as posing a long-term difficulty: there will simply be a smaller pond in which companies can go fishing for talent.

One problem faced by the industry internationally is that of image. Engineering is not on the radar screens of most school pupils as a career, partly because there are few visible role models. Engineers are never portrayed in soap operas, for example, notes Möllmann only half-jokingly.

Insofar as young people have any mental image of engineering, it tends to be negative. For some time in Europe, mention of engineering has conjured up images of dirty hands and poor pay. "The tasks of an engineer are not well understood," says Möllmann.

"A lack of public awareness exists about our industry that feeds several misconceptions" agrees Andy Leather, SBAC's director, Aerospace Innovation and Growth Team Programmes. "This is partly because we are not so good at singing our own praises, but also because sometimes we can be a little too complicated in explaining the exciting innovations that our industry develops.

"In simple terms this is an industry that matters, that makes a significant difference to the performance of our overall economy and that creates wealth for our nation."

In The Family

In the UK, a remarkably high percentage of young people entering engineering have parents or relatives already in that field. This strongly suggests that those who do have some insight into what engineering entails are sufficiently enthused to enter the sector.

A similar comment comes from the AIA's Blakey: "Once you get Jet A in your veins people seem to love it and tend not to leave."

Engineering 2 
 © Tom Campbell

Aerospace companies, she says, have lower staff turnover rates than other industries because of the "tremendous fulfilment" their jobs can bring. "You know what you're designing is of fundamental importance to the country's security and economy. People can walk out of an airport on to the tarmac and see a gorgeous bird that they've helped to make."

Get aerospace in front of young people and give them a glimpse of what it involves and there seems to be a good chance of enticing them to join it.

There is one exception to this rule. Ironically, given the UK experience of parental involvement breeding interest in engineering among youngsters, the opposite seems to apply in the USA as far as aerospace is concerned. This is a result, the AIA believes, of the previously highly cyclical nature of the industry.

With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s resulting in major lay-offs in the US defence aerospace sector, it seems that employees caught up in that trauma actively advise their children against going into aerospace, for fear of them being caught up in a repetition of the downturn.

The cyclical nature of the aerospace sector has passed into the realms of urban legend and is now much reduced, says Blakey. The civil sector, which accounts for 60% of orders, is international, growing and stable.

So, how can students be energised into looking at aerospace as a viable career option, and have them take the necessary subjects at school to prepare them for it?

In both the UK and USA there has been a trend for school students to shun subjects perceived as "difficult", such as maths and sciences. The same applies at universities, where engineering degrees tend to require more hours in the lecture theatre than arts subjects and are thus less attractive to many.

The AIA is trying to tackle this at source. It is lobbying powerful Congressional committee heads as part of the current revamping of the US education budget, urging them to take steps to strengthen the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This would involve more recruitment and training of teachers in those subjects, plus the creation of specialist schools.

It is also urging that retired aerospace scientists and engineers be offered a second career in the classroom as mentors and support for teachers.

"Our strategic aim is to raise the whole lake," by increasing the numbers of people taking these subjects, says Gertler. They could be introduced to aerospace when they reach the age of thinking about college majors.

The Right Curriculum

At a local level, the industry is also going "literally school district by school district" urging schools to put the right type of curriculum in place, says Gertler.

At the same time it is trying to make aerospace fun again. Programmes such as the Space Shuttle have succeeded almost too well in making trips into space routine, he says. They no longer excite interest or ambition among the young.

With this in mind, AIA organises the annual Team America Rocketry Challenge. This year's target: for school students to design a rocket capable of launching to a height of 75ft (24m) with a payload of two raw eggs and returning them - undamaged - to the ground.

"I never expected when I came here to run defence policy that I would be running the world's largest rocketry contest," says Gertler. (The winners of the US competition will meet their UK counterparts at July's Farnborough air show.)

In the UK, companies already work well with schools and universities, says the SBAC, but could do better. The organisation is working to put in place a more robust strategy to ensure coherence across this sector and is helping develop the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing, which aims to simplify the currently fragmented and complex arrangements for skills and training funding.

In addition it is embarking on a campaign to raise awareness of the industry among the public and the media to promote the contribution aerospace and defence make to local and national economies.

Industry on both sides of the Atlantic stresses that there are exciting, well-paid aerospace jobs available to anyone who possesses the necessary talent.

It seems certain that it will take a concerted, and probably long-term, strategy bringing together governments, companies and educational authorities to ensure that students know that they even exist.

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