THE SOCIETY OF BRITISH Aerospace Companies (SBAC) recently launched an initiative to attract more young people into the aerospace industry, citing as one of the reasons for doing so a widespread concern that the industry could be facing skills shortages in the future. One of the most obvious manifestations of such shortages is the use of temporary workers, on short-term contracts, in a bid to fill in the gaps.

To gauge how widespread the problem is now, and may become in the future, Flight International has, on behalf of Hunting Aviation, commissioned a survey of the European aerospace jobs market. The aims of the survey were threefold:

to give an overview of the European aerospace market for temporary maintenance and engineering workers; to examine the factors influencing the hire of temporary workers; to highlight future trends and key issues for companies within the market.

The survey was conducted earlier this year by the Harris Research Centre of Richmond, UK, among 225 aerospace company sites in Europe, 132 of which were using temporary workers in some capacity. Of those companies using temporary workers, 49% were in the UK and the rest in continental Europe (interviews were conducted in German, French, Italian, Spanish or English as appropriate). By far the largest industry sector represented was that of third-party maintenance, which accounted for 36% of the companies surveyed, followed by other civil-aviation activities with 26%, component manufacture with 14%, defence activities with 11%, and airframe and engine manufacturers with 10%.

The companies surveyed accounted for some 123,000 employees, of whom some 7,000 people were temporary workers of any description - an average of 53 per site. Of those, the vast majority of employees (6,300) were temporary maintenance or engineering workers - some 90% of the total identified.

Temporary ratios

Although those temporary maintenance and engineering workers account for only 5% of the workforce in the companies surveyed, they account for some 12% of the total engineering and maintenance work carried out within those companies. In only a handful of companies is more than 20% of such work carried out by temporary staff, but in almost 20% of cases, 5% of the engineering and maintenance workers are temporary.

Over half (52%) of those surveyed say that the number of temporary maintenance or engineering workers employed by their companies has increased in the last three years: 31% say that the number of temporary staff is the same, and only 16% say that the numbers have decreased.

More temporaries expected

Projecting forward, 39% expect to employ more temporary workers in three years time than they do now, with another 39% expecting the numbers to stay the same, and only 16% expecting them to decrease (see chart). While almost as many (49% compared with 54%) of UK employers have increased their use of temporary workers in the last three years, British companies are much less sure about hiring even more temporary workers in the next three years than are their continental cousins: 48% of the mainland European respondents expect an increase, while only 31% of UK firms believe that numbers will rise.

UK firms are also more likely to shed temporary workers of the next three years: 20% of them expect to employ fewer temporary workers in the future, compared with 12% on the Continent. (Some of this discrepancy in optimism may be down to the difference in economic cycles between the UK and the rest of Europe. The UK, having entered the last depression earlier, has come out of it earlier than has the rest of Europe, meaning that its aerospace companies have returned to normal working more quickly.)

Where companies do expect to take on more temporary workers, the average predicted increase is 45%, whereas the decrease for those expecting to cut back is much more savage, at 61%. Throughout Europe, it is the third-party maintenance companies which expect to hire the most new temporary workers, and the airframes and defence companies which expect the greatest cutbacks.

The reasons for companies hiring temporary staff are varied. The most-commonly quoted reasons start with the obvious (89% of all respondents quote the ability to manage fluctuations in demand), to the perhaps rather more surprising (46% of all respondents say they use temporary hiring as a way of screening candidates for future employment). Getting specific skills and expertise is quoted by 56%, and 48% cite "filling in for absent employees" as a reason for temporary hires.

Again, UK and continental European companies differ markedly in the reasons for hiring temporary workers: 66% of the UK respondents do it to capture specific skills and expertise, while only 46% of other Europeans do, but the tables are turned when it comes to covering for absent employees (38% for the UK, but 58% for the rest of Europe). Part of this discrepancy may simply be down to the longer holidays enjoyed by continental Europeans. UK companies are also far more likely (54%) to use temporary work as a way of evaluating candidates for permanent jobs than are continental Europeans (39%).

When respondents are asked to list only their two most important reasons for temporary hiring, the differences in results are even more marked. While around 80% on each side of the English Channel cite managing fluctuations in demand as a top reason, searching for specific skills is a far more compelling reason for a UK company (45% against 21% for the rest of Europe) - a position reversed on holiday cover, cited by 27% of continental companies but by only 9% of UK firms.

The rising importance of electronics and avionics in modern aircraft is reflected in the fact that 65% of the companies using temporary workers at the moment are using electricians or avionics specialists, where 48% are using temporary design and planning engineers and 43% are using temporary structural-repair specialists. While similar numbers of UK and mainland European companies use temporary avionics engineers, twice as many UK companies than European ones use temporary design and planning engineers. The biggest users of avionics engineers and structural-repair specialists are the third-party maintenance companies, while airframe and components manufacturers are the big users of temporary design and planning engineers.

The specific skills which aerospace companies think will be in most demand in the next five years also vary geographically and by type of employer. The most commonly listed in the survey are design and planning engineers (mentioned by 25% of all respondents), electricians and avionics specialists (23%), and structural- repair specialists (20%).

The demand for design and planning engineers is most commonly cited by UK companies (38% mention them), whereas in contrast only 12% of European companies list requirements. (The companies which see the greatest demand for these engineers are airframe and components manufacturers, and third-party maintenance organisations.)

Future demand for other types of temporary workers seems to be foreseen more by European companies than UK ones: some 27% of European companies think demand for electricians and avionics specialists will be high, as against 18% of UK companies; 25% of the Europeans forecast a high demand for structural-repair specialists, but only 14% of UK companies do. In both of those categories it is, naturally enough, the third-party maintenance organisations which forecast most of the demand.

Interestingly, comparatively few of the companies which forecast high demand for these various trades forecast shortages in the supply of these skills. Only electricians and avionics specialists, and design and planning engineers, are seen as being in short supply by 10% or more of respondents, and only a handful of companies see looming shortages in any of the other skills areas listed. Despite that, 24% of respondents say that an increasing lack of skilled workers is one of the trends facing the industry, and 16% say that overall, temporary working will increase.

European harmonisation

One of the big issues facing European companies as a whole is the increasing harmonisation of the employment market, and the increased mobility of workers which such harmonisation (especially of licences) should theoretically bring. That is the theory, but it is not borne out by the predictions of the companies approached in this survey.

Almost as many (19%) say they will be employing fewer temporary workers from outside their national boundaries in five years' time as say they will be employing more (23%). Just under one quarter of the companies now using temporary workers use people from countries other than their own, with continental companies three times more likely to employ foreigners on temporary contracts than are their UK counterparts.

The UK's reputation for Euroscepticism is borne out in the predictions for the situation in five years' time: while 26% of continental European companies expect to hire more foreign workers, only 13% of UK companies do; and where only 17% of continental companies expect to employ fewer foreign temporary workers, 25% of UK companies expect to cut their use.

Almost three-quarters of those companies which are using temporary workers source some or all of their requirements through recruitment specialists, while one-third of them also recruit directly from other aerospace companies and 17% of them hire temporary workers direct from other industry sectors.

In the next three years, 34% of these companies expect to hire more temporary workers direct from other aerospace companies, 32% of the companies expect to hire more through recruitment consultancies, and 26% direct from other industry sectors. Roughly half as many companies as expect to increase their recruitment from those sources expect to reduce their recruitment, meaning an overall increase in such recruitment.

Armed forces recruitment

The biggest non-aerospace-industry source foreseen by those employers for their temporary staff is people leaving the armed forces: 31% of all respondents cite this. With the armed forces having been reduced to practical minimum size now in most European countries, there must be concern in the industry about being able to rely on this source in the future. The other major outside industries from which aerospace companies expect to hire temporary workers include the automotive industry (20%), general engineering (23%) and electronics (12%). Interestingly, 20% of respondents expect temporary workers to return to the automotive and engineering sectors at the ends of their contracts.

Although the use of temporary workers is widespread throughout the industry, fewer than half of the companies using them make specific budgetary plans for employing them. UK firms seem to do more planning than their continental counterparts (55% of those using temporary workers have a budget for doing so, compared with 36%).

This trend is reflected in the greater likelihood of a British company having in place a system for forecasting demand for temporary workers. Where 66% of UK companies have such a system, only 40% of the European companies do. Fewer than half of companies using temporary engineering workers, either in the UK or in continental Europe, have a system in place for measuring the productivity of those workers, however.

See the special advertising section Engineering Services/Employment Services Index" on pages 83/4 and 88/9 in the Classified Advertising section of this issue.

Hunting aviation

Hunting Aviation, which sponsored the research work for this survey, is a division of Hunting plc, which is a UK-based, international group of companies with an annual turnover of £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion).

Although Hunting has interests in the defence, oil and gas businesses, its roots lie in aviation - it having originally been an aircraft manufacturer.

Today, its aviation interests are centred on seven companies within the Hunting Aviation grouping.

The companies are:

Hunting Contract Services, providing on-site management, maintenance, training, logistics and support services to the UK Ministry of Defence;

Hunting Technical Services, supplying technicians, engineers and fitters to aerospace and telecommunications companies;

Hunting Aircraft Engineering Centre, providing base and line maintenance work, interiors, modifications, paint and avionics services;

Hunting Airmotive, a designated overhaul, repair and warranty centre for Allison T56 and Rolls-Royce Dart and Conway engines;

Hunting Cargo Airlines, a company which operates scheduled overnight air-cargo services;

Hunting Airline Interiors designs and manufactures complete passenger cabin interiors and components;

Hunting InFlight Systems supplies cabin-management and in-flight entertainment systems to VIP, corporate and long-haul airline operators.

Source: Flight International